I spoke to a man today who tearfully explained that he's never felt part of a family. With anyone. "I've always felt more like the help," he said. The sense has followed him into adulthood. He has his reasons. His militaristic father saw the children as recruits to be conformed if they were to be addressed at all. Mother was ever present in body but lodged in a bottle at sea.
The man, dabbing his eyes as he chose his words, was grieving at his growing awareness of things he's never known: Inclusion. Belonging. The security of knowing in the face of life's occasional BS that there's an us to turn back to and start again. He had no idea what to do about this insight but agonize. Even the Prodigal Son had a plan B. What does the story mean when the son is the only one who stayed home?
I told him that it made sense that he feels separated from others. To some extent we all do. Some of us pride ourselves in it, telling others with a stiff upper lip that "holy" means "apart," a meager attempt to spiritualize our feeling of isolation. If you can't beat em, judge em.
I went on to say that I hoped he would continue to take some of the steps he'd outlined in getting to know some others, getting known by some others, all that. I was affirming what seemed to be progress. He nodded. But his face told me he knew he wasn't getting through. I invited him to say more. So he told me that in an effort to find his place in the world, he'd elected to live in the woods. For three years. During this time he'd owned a home and had all the money he needed. But he chose to live outside, beyond society's reach somewhat, keeping food in the trunk of his car. He spoke to almost no one the entire time. And as he told me about living as a long-haired wild man, he seemed less upset. Almost beaming, as one bragging to another about his loving family, the good 'ol days. "Sometimes people would talk to me out there and tell me it was dangerous living where there are bears. I said no, bears aren't dangerous. They don't have any bad feelings. They're just bears and I connect with them because they're just being them and I'm just being me. It's really peaceful." He was full on smiling now.
The pain returned to his face when he conceded that none of it was a solid strategy for becoming a connected and loving human being. And so there he stood, clean shaven and employed, an adult orphan wishing he felt as one with people as he did with animals.
I imagine him doing his office duties and interacting on the level of acquaintance with people variously emailing and filing and projecting for next quarter, smiling thinly if they get to the coffee machine the same time he does. I assume a few others know his name. He knows theirs. Someone will notice his shirt is striped, or that he's balding, but they won't realize those are the only conscious thoughts they'll have about a human being they share a building, and atmosphere, a planet with.
And I imagine a tired mother glued to her phone, neglecting her children according to the verdict rendered by those walking past her at the mall. A teen with her eyes closed, losing herself in the complex arrangement of guitars and drums roaring through her earbuds. This one we call lazy. A man who we designate as annoying behind his back, whose hands tremble around other people and who tells dumb jokes to release tension only he feels. I imagine all the ways many of us would prefer the woods some days, because it's so damn hard to feel like you belong. If we could just figure out how to look each other in the eye and say, I'll be me, you be you, and let's be perfectly ok with that. Like the bears do. It all seems so dangerous.
As the man walked away to go to work, I hugged him. Just in case he hadn't had any actual human contact. It was an awkward hug, but even bad hugs are good ones. I told him I thought a lot of his path, and his courage. He smiled and thanked me, and then said he keeps camping gear in his car, just in case. "Yeah, in ten minutes I can be gone. Any temperature."