“The friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you.” ~Elbert Hubbard
In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote and conveyed one of the most significant social phenomenons of our time. His book, Bowling Alone, demonstrated statistically how over just a few years American society moved increasingly further away from so many of the social constructs on which it was founded.
A simple research illustration in Putnam’s work showed while the number of people who bowled during the last 20 years increased, the number who actually bowled in leagues decreased. They were bowling alone.
Carried further, his data indicated fairly dramatic decreases in group social affiliations that were once important to us – Parent-Teacher Associations, church, political parties, evening dinner parties. Neighborhoods where children once roamed freely and without care evolved to burgs where families don’t know their next-door neighbors, and everyone looks at one another with shocking anxiety when the doorbell rings.
We’ve personally disengaged with society to the point, Putnam diagnosed, where we are less healthy, and less happy.
Simply stated, Putnam’s book addressed the truth that no one really talks to anyone anymore. We self-seclude. I understand it in an acute way.
I stayed in a mostly dark bedroom for the better part of two years, and went to even further extremes looking for healing in places where it simply can’t be found. In the wake of a failed 19-year marriage followed shortly by a shuttered business where I’d invested everything I knew, and all that I had, I woke up one day completely lost and blaming myself for everything. In fact, I wasn’t at fault for everything, but that’s what chronic depression tells you. And it tells you to give up.
With Dana, my new wife, her help, and time, I healed painfully slowly, and walked gradually, one step at a time, into the light. Our slow persistence to bring me back, didn’t prevent missteps, or lessons from some of the more extreme directions we took. But I think it was our most extreme undertaking that brought the greatest lesson.
When an only son loses his father a new sense of responsibility is born. Whether it’s true or not that he becomes the head of the family is debatable, but inevitably, he feels the call of a new role. My dad’s death early that year woke me to some new realities and forced an incomplete, but new phase of my healing. In fact, I think it paved the way for what I needed to learn most.
The windfall of a small early inheritance my mother graciously shared opened up the new possibility of a financial reset. It could’ve been seed money for a new business startup, an investment in our retirement or any other traditional pursuit within reason. I opted for an extreme idea outside all good reason, but that’s really nothing new.
Throughout my secluded depression I’d get lost in re-living the far-fetched notion I’d had since exchanging childhood notes with a Venezuelan pen pal. South America seemed so distantly different to all I knew about life. Late at night Dana and I watched travel show re-runs about people who dropped everything to expatriate to the unknown challenges of a new life abroad and start fresh with the possibilities only new landscapes can bring.
The short-story version is that we took an exploratory trip to Ecuador, and at the end of 10 days bought a small parcel of land near the beach. Three months later we began construction on a small house, and six months after that we took two plane tickets and five suitcases on an adventure from which we didn’t know if we’d honestly ever return. We had an open-ended ticket to a life of new possibilities.
It was the adventure of a lifetime. Our marriage relationship as friends and partners strengthened beyond everything either of us ever dreamed. We made new friends, watched amazingly spectacular Pacific sunsets from our rooftop every night and were like two kids learning all new things in a Latin culture we now love.
It was a new phase of real healing for my depression, but only the beginning and not the cure-all so many of us think we can find by running away. What I realized several months after our transition was this: Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
It’s exhaustingly painful to hide behind a mask every day. Thank goodness I’m becoming more like Tim.
Certain stories resonate more than others along the Camino, and among Camino family herds. Because of their magnitude, they take on a certain lore. I’d heard Tim’s story weeks before I met him and he was gracious enough to share it with me in detail only a few moments after we met in the iconic Parador Plaza in Leon. It’s the kind of sharing that’s a Camino trademark, and is the anti-thesis of Bowling Alone’s conclusion. The Camino fosters a genuine transparency you find in almost no other environment. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is.
(Above, my interview with Tim in Leon. Such a good man.)
I knew from conversations with other pilgrims that Tim came to Spain as part of a healing process from the unexpected loss of his wife, but wasn’t completely prepared for the clear picture he painted so quickly about the loss.
A self-described Alaska slug and goof-off who’s always enjoyed lying on the couch watching football, Tim was in good spirits from a 40-kilometer walk the day before (the equivalent of a full marathon) when he stepped on a scale to realize he’d lost 20 pounds. I asked if he minded sharing why he’d come so far.
In the first 30 seconds of our impromptu interview, Tim said he’d come as a tribute to his wife who’d died 18 months earlier. She was a physical therapist and lifeguard out for an afternoon walk when she experienced a seizure, fell to the ground and drown in six inches of water. In an instant, Tim and his family were overcome with the void left by her death. She was his best friend. It didn’t bother Tim one bit to let me, a complete stranger, know how much it hurt.
“She loved long walks. This is kind of for her. She would’ve enjoyed every step,” he said.
The following day Tim placed a few of his wife’s ashes at Cruz Ferro, the place where, for a millenia, pilgrims have left the hurt of their burdens behind.
Our conversation that day was part of an ongoing process I gradually understand more each day.
We don’t have to pretend. No matter how much things hurt, it’s okay to be you. And by being the real you, you might actually help someone else.
My goal is that each day, I become a little more like Tim.