Alfred needs friends, and lately, despite his crippling social phobias he’s trying to make some. Occasionally he tries to reach out by telling someone the story of his childhood traumas, but his monologues can make listeners feel as isolated in his company as he must feel when he’s by himself.
Once he heard on the radio that the way to make friends is to ask people about themselves, and the next day over coffee he asked me question after question about my childhood. I don’t know if he’s tried that technique 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.
These days he’s making efforts to share in the social life of 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 job with a landscaper long ago. As luck would have it, the property around the building is flat, so his neighbors are discussing only plain, level designs.
“Nobody listens to me,” Alfred growled. “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 visit the chairman and say I want to help him, things will go better.” But Alfred can’t seem to hold onto his own best advice. As our hour together ended he’d decided just to tell everybody at the next meeting that they’re wrong and he’s right.
Then yesterday, not ten minutes after sadly remarking that he always rides alone on bus tours, he described what happened in the supermarket when another customer tried to help him open the plastic sack he needed for bagging up some apples. “I told the guy, ‘Get your hands the hell off my bag!'” Alfred smiled reminiscently into the steam rising from his coffee. “Alfred, was that a lost opportunity?” I asked, adding, “A friendship can start in the produce department.” He looked at me blankly. He just doesn’t “get” other people. Maybe he suffers from a form of autism on top of his psychiatric problems. I don’t think he even realizes I’m his friend.
This has its benefits. All my life I’ve been a teacher, a booster, a prompter, a reformer – but from Alfred I’m learning to accept that some people don’t change. And this is changing me. Instead of forever trying to make stuff happen, I’m getting pretty good at just spending time with another human being. Alfred may never learn a thing from me, but I can learn from him, and I can care about him even if I barely exist in his world view.
Amid the relentless onslaught of bad news about wars, corporate shenanigans, a broken financial system, and the blunders of elected leaders, such knowledge is a sure-fire defense against spending every day feeling angry, helpless, and small.
Further episodes in the life of “Alfred” are at Crosscut.com: “Alfred gets to tell his story” and a story about the rivalry between him and his brother. Still another is here at Freestyle Volunteer: “A Flower on Alfred’s Cactus?”
Stories about other “coffee companions” and freestyle volunteering tips are on the How Do People Freestyle Volunteer? page tabbed above.