Political campaign leads to lessons in loneliness
Last spring, I failed in a bid to become a council member in Hellertown. My campaign wasn’t too clever, and I lost by seven votes. Life goes on. What I learned about my community was far more important than my political ambitions, and it’s an issue around which we should unite, especially as election season looms again in Northampton County.
Spend a month or two doing political canvassing — any kind of canvassing, probably — and you’ll ascertain more about today’s neighborhoods than you’ll ever find on Google or social media.
You’ll stumble upon surprises. You’ll see who has the messiest yet most interesting porches (Democrats). And the best-constructed porches (Republicans). Who loves pit bulls (everybody). You’ll ascertain that even when a doorbell button hangs by its wires, it often still works. And when homeowners put up “No Trespassing” signs, they dang well mean it.
I also noticed that a decent number of people in my town can be found, in the middle of the day, getting drunk, alone. Which, perhaps, relates to my main subject.
For the darkest secret I encountered in my friendly hometown wasn’t corruption, incompetence, cronyism or even alcoholism. It was human loneliness.
A sickening and urgent aloneness slithers through Hellertown like some rarely seen snake, leaving a long trail of need in its reptilian spoor.
The loneliness was especially evident among the aging. I met an old Irish Democrat, originally from Philly, who voted for Trump, and yet who promised to vote for me — a big, Trump-loathing liberal — not because he agreed with me (he called my campaign “bull——”), but because I bothered to stop at his house at all. I just about fell in love with this blonde-and-gray-haired gent. His flinty eyes, his lived local history, his gameness for the old-fashioned doorto-door democratic tussle — I found it incredibly charming. How he could vote for Trump was beyond me. But we connected because this man was desperate to be heard.
And no one has been listening. I came upon dozens of house-proud seniors living alone. There was an old woman with perfect pink rhododendrons alongside an emerald lawn. Her boxwood shrubs looked as smoothly cut as big green gumdrops, but her pressing concern was about a tree not being replanted at the church across the street. There was a tall, welldressed Korean War veteran who reminded me of Cary Grant. Striking original artwork filled his house. This handsome Marine invited me in, listened intently, nodded and helped get me on the ballot (he has since died, I learned).
There was a nonagenarian woman with a minty-colored retro-cool kitchen from 1962. She worried, almost helplessly, I sensed, about young hipsters spilling dangerously onto Main Street from a trendy local watering hole. On voting day, I saw this woman hobble down the sidewalk and into the poll, with great difficulty and greater dignity. I had her vote — but she had my heart.
It wasn’t just the old. I came upon people isolated by many circumstances — newness to their community, the burdens of child care, race, ethnicity or just plain eccentricity. There was a long-haired musician with stories galore and no one to hear them. There was a black woman who wanted to talk to someone about how the police treat the mentally ill. A county issue, I thought. “I’ll do my best to convey your concerns,” I said. But I knew that what the woman really needed bigger was a chance to continue the conversation.
It became increasingly clear, as I knocked on door after door, that hundreds of my neighbors simply never have anyone visit them. In our world of web-based echo chambers and socialmedia bubbles, it’s not just children who suffer from, say, unregulated screen-time.
It’s also what we’re not doing as community members. We’re not talking to each other. We’re not listening to real people who live beside us. Instead, we’re post-raging on Twitter. We’re hate-liking photos of distant friends on vacation in Bermuda but ignoring the silent need across the street.
I don’t want to knock a healthy solitude. Perhaps a few people I saw as “lonely” were merely projections of my own fears. Embracing solitude, after all, is where the mystic Thomas Merton suggests “the deepest activities” begin.
But I also saw something sad. Wonderful, wonderful people — so many of them — wanting to talk, waiting to share themselves, desperate for a chat, and just a knock away.
The author says his political campaign taught him that behind many of the closed doors in his community were lonely people looking for some human connection in their day.