Alfred wants friends in his life, but the heavy psychic constraints of PTSD, OCD, and social anxiety keep him from easily reaching out to others. On the occasions when he tries to make a connection with someone new, he often starts by telling the story of his childhood traumas, in a mournful monologue that can make a listener feel as isolated in his company as he probably feels when he’s by himself.
Once he heard on the radio that the way to make friends is to ask people about themselves. The next day over coffee he asked me question after question about my childhood, and then proudly announced that a radio commentator had taught him this conversational technique. I don’t know if he’s tried it on other people. Last spring he reported that nobody sat beside him on the senior citizen bus tour to the tulip fields in bloom. On such outings he’s used to riding next to an empty seat.
Still, he's been trying hard lately. For instance, he's been participating more in the activities of his neighbors in the apartment building where he lives. Residents are planning a communal garden, and Alfred has offered them the expertise and the passion for terraced plantings that he developed in a brief long-ago job with a landscaper. But just his luck: The property around the building is flat.
"They don't want terraces," Alfred growled a few weeks ago. (To protect "Alfred's" privacy I've changed the nature of the project.) “Nobody listens to me," he said. "They think I’m their enemy, when I’m only telling them why they’re wrong.”
I floated the concepts of tact and timing and compromise, and his eyes lit up: “Maybe if I tell the chairman I want to help him, things will go better,” he said. But Alfred can’t seem to hold on to his own best advice. By the end of our coffee hour he’d talked himself back around to the plan of standing up at the next meeting to tell everyone they’re wrong and he’s right.
During the second world war, Alfred and his family were sent to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho for Japanese-Americans. Does this help explain who he is today? It's hard to know. People are such mysteries.
Then yesterday, not ten minutes after glumly remarking that he always rides alone on senior-citizen bus tours, he described what had happened in the supermarket when another customer tried to help him open the plastic sack he needed for bagging some apples.
“I told the guy, ‘Get your hands the hell off my bag!’” Alfred said, smiling reminiscently into the steam from his coffee cup.
“Do you think that might have been a a lost opportunity, Alfred?” I asked. “A friendship can start in the produce department.”
He looked at me blankly. He just doesn’t get it. When he wonders aloud why he doesn't have any friends, he doesn't even think of counting me as one.
But being ignored has its good side — not for Alfred, but for me. All my life I’ve been a teacher, a booster, a reformer (go ahead, call me pushy), but from Alfred I’m learning to accept that even after three years of meeting with him every week I'm not making much of a difference in his life. I'm just being a difference.
And this makes a difference to me. Instead of always trying to change things I’m getting pretty good at spending goal-free hours of just hanging out with another human being. Alfred may never learn a thing from me, but I learn from him, and I can care about him even if, in his world view, I barely exist.
Amid the relentless onslaught of news about wars, natural disasters, corporate malfeasance, and shameless political shenanigans, this is a surefire defense against spending every day feeling angry, helpless, and small.