Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Bad Company

Someone once said, "A man alone is in bad company."

Often during the year, and especially during this holiday time, I think not of "a man" so much as of women, mainly widows who live in my community, living in houses that are too big for them. Many, like my neighbor "Ann," are growing increasingly lonely, depressed, and confused as they advance into their late 80s.

Ann has the (annoying) habit of ringing our doorbell each evening as we are eating or preparing dinner. She wants to say something inconsequential to us but important to her. I try to be patient. Her house, which we see only rarely, is never cleaned or even dusted; nothing is thrown away. She lives almost like Miss Havisham in Dickens, surrounded by reminders of the past, hoping to join her husband, dead now 15 years, in heaven.

She rejects any intrusion into her increasingly isolated life; at least she gets to church for some social contact and talks to neighbors, but at Christmas, lacking any family, she will wait to be invited to join someone. The couple who have power of attorney rarely call. What family she has lives in other states and seldom bothers with her.

People should not be alone, especially at this time when family connections or community matter so much. My wife Lynn brings soup to Ann and other things she might eat; others also keep tabs on her, but it is hard to think of her and not wonder how her life will end.
Her memory is poor, her mind slipping; she is not easy to be with. Yet she must be loved.

It so happened this week that I located a blog by the Oxford historian Timothy Stanley (timothystanley.co.uk), who caught my attention by discussing his long visits to a Benedictine monastery. There he rests rather than prays. And he observes a sense of community and compassion missing in our secular society.

He concludes that the modern welfare state--impersonal and vast--could learn a few lessons from the monasteries, which historically offered help to the poor and sick and comfort to those who fled tyranny; the monks suffered along with the people in times of plague and famine. They offered a social net that was personal. It was compassionate.

I don't know how the vast numbers of elderly people living alone today could benefit in a practical way from the monastic ideal--except to say that ordinary lay people who try to live contemplatively and compassionately can create informal communities so that fewer people suffer the loneliness of winter, the emptiness of a Christmas with no one around, with no sense of being loved, at a time when the world is singing about love and joy.

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