Harry lived directly across the road from my (Rich) house in Upstate New York. He was alone in his mid-nineteenth century farmhouse that was barely hanging on to its earlier days of beauty. Harry would occasionally eat dinner with our family, paying my mother four or five dollars a week for his meals. His claim to fame at our dinner table was pouring chicken gravy on my mother’s homemade apple pie. How that tasted I’m not sure; I never tried it!
One night when I was 12 years old I woke up frightened out of my wits. It sounded as if someone was kicking in the front door that was immediately below my bedroom. I heard my father jump out of bed and head down the stairs, muttering things I cannot repeat here. Opening the door he came face to face with Harry. Harry barged into our front room, settled into a yawning floral blue chair without a word, and in a matter of minutes he was sound asleep. My father climbed the stairs still muttering pretty much what he did on the way down. By six in the morning Harry had disappeared back into his old farmhouse.
Harry’s midnight episodes continued over the next six months. He routinely woke my family up by pounding. Each time my father muttered as he headed down the stairs to let Harry into the front room where he slept until early morning. They stopped when Harry was taken to the hospital. My mother told me he was terminally ill with cancer. Several weeks later Harry died alone.
Many things struck me about Harry. There was the thing about pouring gravy on apple pie. And there was his beating on our door in the middle of the night. But what made even more of an impression on me was his loneliness. His loneliness was evident even to me as a young boy. Some evenings Harry would sit on the front steps of his farmhouse with his German shepherd next to him. Occasionally, I crossed the road and asked Harry how he was doing. His answer was always, “Pretty good.” But I knew he was sad because the conversation never went much further. At that point I would throw sticks for the dog to retrieve while Harry watched. At dusk my father would whistle or mother would call and I would head home. When I said, “Night,” Harry would raise his hand with a gentle wave. But he remained silent.
Harry’s loneliness had its own story line. He was divorced before my parents built their home in 1933 across the road from his farm. He hung on to the memory of better days through an empty old house that, by size and design, signaled a time when conversation and personal connection was something real. When I knew him his house was the only connection to other’s who mattered the most to him. Its dilapidated condition mirrored the sadness of his alienation from his former wife and only son, connections that had been lost for years.
Harry never found his way toward reconciliation and consequently lived with unresolved pain unknown to others and mostly disowned by himself. He never really understood his own soul and a way toward life-giving communion. He settled for what was available, the companionship of a dog, the kid who lived across the road, a night out here and there, and chicken gravy on homemade apple pie. He tolerated his loneliness until his end came in sight. At that point his way of coping no longer worked. In his final months he could not help but pounded on our front door in the middle of the night in a desperate attempt to find some relief through distant connection.
Our Relational Life
Harry didn’t vote for loneliness. But that is where he found himself. And that is where many of us find ourselves. Hopefully, we are not as desperate as Harry was. But many have experienced an inner void that fosters an anxiety over the empty places in our souls. “Practically every human being . . . has experienced that strange inner gnawing, that mental hunger, that unsettling unrest that makes us say, “I feel lonely …” (because) loneliness is one of the most universal sources of suffering today.”
Loneliness is “the broad way” that many of us travel. We develop ways to cope with its sadness, ways to manage its pain, ways to exist with its emptiness. But the longer we live the greater the chance we will find ourselves in deep shadows where the darkness proves difficult to bear. Like Harry, we wind up “knocking on a door.”
What does loneliness tell us about ourselves? Be it chronic or acute, slight or significant, loneliness is proof of our relational design. At the core of our being is this truth—we are designed FOR and defined BY our relationships. We were born with a relentless longing to participate in the life of others. Fundamentally, we are relational souls. We cannot not be relational. We cannot exist well without connection and communion with another. Relational reactivity and alienation is death for the soul. It was for Harry. It is for us as well.
Our individual relational reality was born out of the connection of our parents. Without the loving and nurturing presence of others after birth we would not have survived. The relationships in our family of origin shaped and molded our lives. As we grew into adulthood our relationships influenced the state of our souls for good or for ill.
We cannot reach our potential without healthy relationships. Like an acorn maturing into a mighty oak, we grow into maturity through healthy relationships. Life-giving relationships are the source and the fruit of life. When our relationships foster appropriate connection and lead to deep communion with others, we become more fully alive. Deep and meaningful relationships are both the means and the result of living into our potential.
Profound relational connection and communion is “the narrow way” of which Jesus spoke. We may live in an incredible house and have a wonderful job, but if our closest relationships are fractured, life is miserable. Wealth and power prove to be poor substitutes for matters of the heart. The reason we might “gain the whole world and lose our soul” (Matthew 16:26) is simple—we are constituted relationally. We are neurologically configured for and by relationships. Why do we carry this design?
Taken from The Relational Soul by Richard Plass and James Cofield. Copyright (c) 2014 by Richard Plass and James Cofield. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com