In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention. ~ Jay Dratler
Years ago, I sat down to a late lunch with someone very dear to me. Let’s just call her she-who-shall-remain-unnamed. I’ll call her Swsru for short. Swsru wanted to talk to me, wanted to ask me an important question. She asked if I minded if she had some wine with lunch and I told her I would not mind. Lunch was ordered. I had my glass of water, she her wine. After a bit, the important question came out. I was pretty certain I already knew what was going to be asked but didn’t want to spoil her surprise.
“Do you think I’m an alcoholic?” she asked as she took another sip of her wine.
After a bit of a pause, I said, “You know, I’ve been taught it’s not up to me to decide for you whether you are or are not an alcoholic. That’s a realization you have to come to on your own.”
So far, so good, right? I, in fact, have no right and it’s not my place to decide for someone else the reality of their life. Despite that, however, I continued.
“On the other hand, you asked me, so I’ll tell you. Yes, I believe you’re an alcoholic. I see all the same traits I see in myself, I see the same attempt to escape a past you’d rather not acknowledge, and I see a present that appears to be falling apart at a breakneck pace.”
Having said that, I went on to talk about me for the next couple of hours. Oh, and I answered questions put to me about me.
“Ben,” you will probably ask, “how is this different from any other encounter we might have with you? In general, it seems your favorite topic of conversation is you.”
Well, yes, I’d have to agree with you on that one. I do so love talking about myself, though I’m also rather open, on occasion, to having you talk to me about me. From my perspective, it’s sort of a win-win situation. I can only assume you have the same impression I do when it comes to talking about me – that talking about me is a rewarding, fascinating experience.
Still, let’s take a look at an interesting phenomena. Why is it, do you think, that so many people over the years have found themselves talking to me — confiding things they may not tell others? Is it because it’s obvious to them I have it all together? No, likely not. I think a part of it is a certain naïveté (that’s French, I believe, for clueless) on my part. Over the years I somehow retained that quality despite things that happened which should have turned me into a total cynic. While I came close to all-encompassing cynicism, my perceptions instead remained a little like a total eclipse of the sun. I was still able to see the tiniest bit of light peeking around the edges even after my world had been plunged into darkness. Looking back, I realize that, despite it all, I managed to hang on to a kind of innocence that probably made no rational sense at all.
More than anything, it may also be that others perceived an openness in me that promised I’d not be pronouncing judgment on them for what they told me in confidence. Like it or not, it seems there’s a level of vulnerability in me I’ve never been able to completely hide. At times it was as though I had a sign around my neck, like the one hanging over Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip which read “The Doctor is In – Psychiatric Help 5¢.” What some may not have realized was that I was the one most likely in need of psychiatric help. Be that as it may, the confiding continued.
Allow me a small illustration that should make you wonder how I lived this long. Seems this type of thing happened all to often. Years ago, I was in San Francisco. It was evening and I was downtown and alone. It was already dark outside and I believe I was waiting for a bus or streetcar to take me back home. I saw a guy standing perhaps a hundred feet away from me. I likely nodded to him as I am wont to do as my way of acknowledging his presence. He said something to me but I couldn’t understand it. Instead of ignoring this total stranger (as many would have done), I moved a little closer.
“Sorry,” I said in a loud voice, “I didn’t understand you.”
Again there came a garbled response. I still had no clue what the guy said. So, instead of ignoring him (as many would have done), I moved a little closer. This went on a couple more times until I was standing next to the guy. I suppose my hearing wasn’t all that great even back then but I’m certain I wouldn’t have admitted to it.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I still couldn’t understand what you said.”
Again, the other guy repeated himself. This time he came in loud and clear since I was only a few feet away from him at this point. “I was just wondering if you wanted to buy some weed.”
This, I understood. Always the polite one, I thanked him for the offer but declined. My bus arrived and I motored away. For someone who was afraid most of the time of his own shadow, I often seemed fearless in situations which probably should have scared me. Tom tells me this wasn’t fearlessness, it was stupidity. Still, it pointed out that some part of me retained what was perhaps an insane belief in the innate goodness of people.
Now back to Swsru. One of the reasons our talk was effective was that I didn’t presume to describe her life to her. I had no way of knowing all the particulars of her life. Instead, I described my life – my years of drinking – to her. I knew her drinking didn’t take her to exactly the same awful places it took me. And that really didn’t matter. Her drinking took her to her own awful places. The circumstances weren’t the same, the pain, however, was likely very much the same. In this case, the solution would need to be the same for her as it had been for me. When getting sober I was told the only way to get sober would be, at some point, to stop drinking. While that may sound logical to “normal” drinkers, it was a terrorist bomb set off in my head. My solution for so many years had ceased to be a solution. Still, the real solution sounded far scarier than simply drinking myself to death.
While alcoholism may seem an extreme example of self-will gone riot, it’s really only a matter of degree. Most everyone has pain in their lives. Was mine more severe than yours? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But pain is pain. Much depends on how well you’re able to handle it. I often wondered where I was when they handed out the handbook of life. So many people seemed to have a copy (which they didn’t share with me) and appeared to handle their lives so much more easily than I.
Looking back, though, I realize many people don’t handle their problems much better than I did. Sure, the addiction may have been different. They may have been addicted to eating, to control, to sex, to violence – any number of things used in an attempt to avoid seeing ourselves for what we think we are. There are so many things people use as comfort — even though those things may appear very un-comforting to others. Many of those things are as harmful to them or others as alcohol was for me. The problem is, we as a society don’t acknowledge many of those things as addiction. The problem is, many things don’t get better as long as we can fool ourselves into thinking our problem isn’t nearly as bad as someone else’s.
And so. There are a lot of hurting people in this world. There are too many who suffer in silence because they don’t have a clue how to ask for help. Or, they are too afraid to ask for help for fear of being judged. But, they may find themselves sitting with someone like me, someone they believe intuitively will listen to them tell a story they need to tell and not walk away. I didn’t tell people my story for years because I was afraid they’d walk away. Walking away comes in many forms. If I believe you will think less of me for confiding in you, that’s a form of walking away to me. How could I risk it?
How can you be one of those listening people to someone else? Be honest with yourself. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have regrets. When I finally took a long look at myself, I realized there was no way I could continue to hang on to all that anger. If I’d like to be forgiven for some of the things I’ve done (and I do), it’s incumbent on me to forgive others. When I accept that other people are hurting too, it becomes more difficult for me to condemn. Hurting people hurt people. Help take away some of the hurt and you help that person stop hurting others and, hopefully, themselves.
Don’t think anyone’s asked you for help lately? Perhaps you simply aren’t listening hard enough. At times it’s necessary to hear between the lines – to hear what someone isn’t saying to you out loud. If we’re willing to listen, however, it’s amazing what we can hear. Simply being there for someone else is often all the listening you need to do. Many times, it won’t be necessary for you to say a single word. If you do, though, be sure to talk about yourself. Share a bit of yourself. Show you’re willing to take on a little of the risk yourself. Show you’re at least willing to try to believe in the goodness in everyone even when that can be very difficult to do.
At my baptism, my friend Judy P. delivered a prayer. One of the things she said in that prayer was, “But even more, I pray that he will see himself as you see him. He is your beloved child, and you have always seen the hidden wholeness within him because you placed it there.” I was fifty-seven years old and don’t think I had ever considered myself whole. What I discovered, however, was that there were other people who saw that wholeness hidden within me. Someone had listened just enough to see what I had refused to see. It began a journey of trying to see that wholeness in myself and that allowed me to look back and see the wholeness in others — hidden or otherwise.
So, while I love to pat myself on the back on occasion, I’ve found I much prefer knowing I can share myself with others. I suppose I’ve always done that but I know now I don’t have to be more than, I don’t have to be less than. It’s enough to simply be. The world looks a lot brighter when I remember it’s not my place to judge you, change you, or control you. It’s a lot brighter when I remind myself to see the good in you no matter how faintly that light may be shining within you.
But, enough about me.