Danny Fitzgerald was the king of our neighborhood. It wasn’t because he was an admirable person, nor was it because he was a great athlete, or one of the more popular guys at our school. He was the neighborhood king because we feared him. Danny Fitzgerald was a bully.
In hindsight, he and his two brothers were probably victims themselves. Everyone was familiar with the alcohol infused, door slamming, window shattering melees his parents got into almost every weekend… but for all of us, he was our worst nightmare.
We always kept an eye out for him with an escape route in reserve, so we could dodge his cruelty. Still, there was one place where we couldn’t avoid him, a place where we were all at his mercy… the bus stop.
Mornings were easier than afternoons. On the way to school we all kept our distance until the bus pulled up. Then we would scurry on board like frightened cockroaches in order to avoid his spitting, cuffing and kicks.
In hindsight, he and his two brothers were probably victims themselves.
The bus ride home was a different story. We all joked and carried on like he didn’t exist, but everyone darted furtive glances his way, hoping his beady pig eyes hadn’t targeted them as one of the victims of the day. He always planted himself next to the bus’s accordion door so he could step out first and watch us march past him like refugees on our way to the gas chamber.
The worst thing about being a victim isn’t the physical pain one suffers or even the emotional trauma; it’s the loneliness and isolation. There is a sudden breach in our world where we are cut off from our community and forced to face the absurd ugliness and meanness of life. When we are victimized, our soul is whittled into an empty husk driven by meaningless circumstance.
In life’s unending struggles, Danny Fitzgerald dons countless masks. In our crowded digital society, many flounder in a fog of deep melancholy and loneliness, even while surrounded with people.
In such moments, we are forced to break through the surface of our everyday existence and penetrate the depth of life’s predicament.
It’s ironic that for many, seasonal gatherings with friends and loved ones only serve to heighten our sense of alienation. For this very reason, it is often the case, that those closest to us are unable to help us unravel this mystery at the center of our being.
At this time of year, as the Christian world celebrates the birth of its Christ, one particular portion of his story is poignant.
His disciple Mark described it this way:
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Here, Jesus also faces alienation. He is cut off from everyone and everything, isolated and alone, at the mercy of the elements with his soul exposed and vulnerable as a battlefield for divine and demonic forces.
But this is a different kind of isolation than the loneliness of the victim. It is something most of us instinctively avoid, and yet, our souls are starving for it. Modern society is constructed to help us flee from it. The daily digital barrage that floods our every waking moment, along with the frenetic freeway pace of life attempts to suffocate its call.
But the only answer for the isolation and loneliness of victimhood is solitude. Solitude is not easy to bear. It wasn’t easy for Jesus. The record continues,
“When evening came he was alone.”
How many of us have spent the midnight hours tossing and turning with an unnamed urgency boiling up inside our hearts? It is in those dark hours of the night that our loneliness becomes even lonelier. The magnificent distractions of modern culture seek to bury this longing, but if repressed, it just keeps crawling back from its grave. Even our prayers and meditations can become escape mechanisms that we use in order to insulate us from this confrontation.
But if we are patient, something is done to us. The innermost center of our soul is opened. In solitude we are forced to kneel before the altar of our limitations. We are brought face to face with our separateness and isolation from the universe. We come to terms with the fact that we can never reach the innermost center of another soul, or for that matter, even ourselves, for we have been fashioned in the image of the infinite one.
In solitude, we make peace with our isolated individuality. We find freedom in this unique separateness that is ours alone. It takes courage to transform our loneliness into solitude. It is the experience of being alone but not lonely. It allows us the breathing room to turn our gaze inward…to disengage from the challenges of the bustling world that constantly demand our attention.
In solitude, as we gaze inward, we face a different kind of challenge.
In solitude, as we gaze inward, we face a different kind of challenge. It’s like trying to capture our shadow. Even though it’s connected to us, it always remains just beyond our grasp. When we try to reach our souls center we are probing a deep well without a bottom.
And in that depth, we are embraced by the Eternal God.
Thing is, the infinite mystery of an aloneness with God that also intersects with the larger human community includes ourselves, everybody, and everything from which we have been alienated. After enduring the isolation and lonely despair of a Nazi death camp Victor Frankl described it thus:
“And sometimes, when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears, a glow of courage, of love, of insight, of selflessness, of faith. In that radiance we see best what humanity was meant to be.”
In a crude way, our entire neighborhood experienced this transformation from isolation to reunion. In the spring, near the end of the school year, everyone at our bus stop joined together. For a moment all of our differences were swallowed by the commonality of our suffering and victimhood. We not only crossed the pubescent minefield of the sexes, uniting male and female, we also temporarily banished the caste system of our differing ages and school grades. We even traversed the no man’s land of our adolescent identities merging the cliques of nerd and cool. The long school year of suffering together as Danny’s victims had driven us into an intimacy we never would have experienced otherwise.
Maybe Danny Fitzgerald thought we were exuberant because it was the last week of school. He certainly couldn’t have missed the way we bounded past him as we exited the bus stifling giggles.
By the time the bus pulled away, each of us had retrieved the two eggs we’d hidden that morning and he was surrounded.
The firing squad was a stupendous splattering success. The grand finale occurred when one of his favorite targets, a mousy book-wormish wisp of a girl, stepped forward, peered into his eyes and calmly squished her egg on the top of his head.
Oddly enough, this event was also redemptive for Danny. His victimhood transformed him into one of us. He never bullied us again.
Doug writes from North Carolina and from a deep place of human reality.