(Monuriki Island, where Tom Hanks was stranded in Cast Away, from Equatours Limited)
I spent part of yesterday at the funeral of a friend. He was only in his early 50s, but had suffered cancer for years. I’d known him my whole life; his parents were my parents’ best friends from the time before I was born, and he and I spent many of my childhood summers together. The service also happened to be in what I consider to be my second hometown – both sets of my grandparents lived there, I met most of my closest friends there, including my Circle friend Alexandra, by way of my Circle friend Tanya – and later I went to college there. After the service I visited the town library and the used bookstore, both of which I went to almost every weekend when I was growing up and spent those weekends with my maternal grandparents. I wasn’t depressed, and the funeral and visits didn’t spark a depressive episode, but I was feeling extraordinarily reflective – and still am, for all that.
The memorial was naturally filled with reminisces about my friend, mostly talking about how much he loved working with kids – especially introducing children to one of his greatest loves, horses – and other things he had done to, with apologies for using a cliche, make the world around him a better place. What got me reflecting was wondering what people would say about me at my funeral. It’s not so much that I was trying to come up with specifics – I don’t think any of us could really guess at that. But mainly what I was wondering was if I’ve done enough to help people, to be there when they needed me, and be the friend and family member I believe I should be.
But then this got tangled with my vague but lifelong desire to be a helper – vague because I don’t always have a clue of what I can do to help even when I know help is needed, and tangled because for a long time that desire manifested in wanting to be a rescuer, and still does to some extent although in a different way.
This used to manifest in the typical way: Wanting to help people by fixing their problems for them. Aside from the fact that this doesn’t typically work, and that they didn’t necessarily want me to do that, there’s also the problem that sometimes no one else can fix their problems but them. (Or if you can, it’s likely their problem will just resurface again later because it was fixed for them.) This aspect of my rescuing desire, though, was burned out of me pretty effectively by dating a sociopath who zeroed in on that immediately and used it to manipulate me at every opportunity. (Years later she found me on Facebook and, not surprisingly, tried using the exact same manipulation that had worked for her before – to no effect, this time, and I didn’t even respond to her.)
The desire to help is still there, but somewhat more passively. This time, the island I tend to wish I could retreat to during my black pits of depression is slowly, as I pursue my spiritual explorations, turning into a metaphor of a place of shelter and peace for my loved ones at need.
To recap: When I’m suffering the worst of my depressive episodes I feel like I just want to gather my animals and my books and go exile myself on some remote island, where I’ll be alone and can’t hurt or disappoint anyone again – as my depression constantly tries to convince me that this is all I’m doing to my loved ones. I imagine an island much like the one in Cast Away, with tweaking here and there. Maybe I have a shortwave radio so I can still hear what’s going on in the world, but otherwise I’m totally isolated, unable to upset anyone else.
But after having reignited my spiritual explorations and with the depression still mostly an ebb tide, my visualization of the island and what it represents has been changing. Instead a place of depressed exile, I’ve begun picturing it as a much larger place shared with loved ones, a place they can come for help, or to find some peace, or shelter, or just for us to be together in some fashion and spend time with each other where, for a while, the rest of the world won’t interfere. A haven rather than a hole to crawl into.
This can take any form. A student who needed a place to live for his final semester because he lost his campus housing accepted a rent-free bedroom in my house for those months. A friend who lived in the D.C area and worked on classified military technology asked me once, at a time of particularly heightened world tensions, if he and his wife could retreat to my house if things in his area ever started blowing up – literally or metaphorically. They have a standing offer to come if any kind of need ever arises. Before my brother-in-law’s suicide, when my mother and I feared he might turn lethally violent, I told my sister that she and her children could stay with me if it became necessary.
This also ties in with the long desire I’ve had to build a small community. That one, which I’ve mentioned here briefly before, would be self-sufficient or nearly so, in a natural area out of the way from large populations, where the people living there could be free at least part of every day to pursue whatever work or pastimes they love most, while all contributing something of their own to the community at large. A place where ultimately people are free to be themselves and develop into who they want to be.
There are a lot of practical challenges to these ideas. The resources to start building such a community in reality have never been there, with either me trying it solo or among the handful of people I knew who shared the idea with me. Even for something less permanent, someone coming to stay with me at need or just for an extended visit, I face the challenge of being married to someone who never wants anyone to come into the house – even my own family – and will fight with me for days over just having somebody to come visit, much less live there.
Challenges aside, though, this is me making an offer when someone decides they need my help, instead of what might have amounted to pushing my way in. And even if those challenges mean the help I want to offer can’t take the exact form I would like it to, I can still do something – and the Island is indeed slowly turning into a place of giving rather than solely a place for me to hide.
Unlike my need to rescue people in my younger years, I’m offering up signposts to the island more than trying to drag people there.
Right now I still don’t think that what I have to offer is nearly enough. But I do also think that I’m in a better place to help someone who asks for it than I was a couple of months ago, when I was alone on that island almost every night.