There is a line in my Pastoral Prayer that I say every Sunday, “…and thank you G-d for turning us to a friend in a time of need…” it’s there for a reason, just like we are all here for a purpose. We are loved, but it’s deeper than that, more personal. On the surface, it is an allusion to G-d’s covenant with humanity, that we are all purpose-made, that we all have worth, and that G-d loves us all and wants us to be happy. Theologically, this is where I dip my toe in the Calvinist waters, that we are predestined to meet and care for one another. I believe that we are all traveling along on life’s journey, and we share the road from time to time with others. Our meeting and sharing are no accident in my mind. Who we chose to help, or hinder, matter. How we act and react matters. I don’t believe it’s coincidental. I have heard too many confessions of people appearing at the right time and place. A thought emerging at a critically weak and vulnerable time in our lives. I have also had personal moments that are just as inexplicable. Sometimes it is hard to admit that I was once down and out. That I was desperate and so lost and mixed up that I felt the only way out was to take my own life.
I remember the night perfectly, crystal clear. It was cold, and I was sitting outside in a white plastic chair at a plastic round table. Empty beer bottles riddled the ground around me, a few shattered from the overgrown brick beneath my feet. The coffee can overflowing with well-drawn cigarettes centered on the table, another beer bottle to the right, and my pistol, freshly cleaned and serviced, on my left. The sound of that night was eerily quiet, no motorcycles, no cars, everyone asleep presumably warm in their homes. My phone, an older model Nextel flip-phone, bashed and beaten from years of abuse and neglect. Many of its flaws products of my throwing it whensoever I got angry or in an argument with my significant other, also ironically, clinging to life. I was struggling with being home from war. Not just the sudden shock of being home, being free, being out of uniform and away from all that I had known and come to trust and depend on for the last 18-months. I was also trying to wrap my head around what happened. What we did, who was missing, and why everyone seemed so trapped by the internet (now we would say social media). How little people valued their freedom, took breathing for granted, didn’t respect good order and discipline, rules, customs, I felt so out of place and alone.
My family saw me as a threat, a risk unwanted, not worth receiving and welcoming. My wife, pregnant with another man’s son… my friends, wanting only to get me drunk and show me a good time. I was a prop for their parties, an excuse to drink more, ask the girls to be more liberal, and take more risks. They didn’t care how I was feeling, and if they heard me, they only heard that I was sad or lonely, and their answer was to drink more, party harder, and talk to more girls. I was tired of trying to discover what I did wrong to cause my wife to cheat and willing to do anything and everything to fix it. Still, I never saw that I was never the problem, just her convenient excuse. She and my family had the same reasoning, “We thought you were going to die,” “it’s just easier,” “you should have died.” By this point in my life, I was fed up with everyone and everything. I had lost my home, my car, my family, my wife, some friends, and my future. Homeless, cold, sadder than I had ever, at that time felt, I was done.
I tried to find any reason, any excuse, not to kill myself, and I couldn’t think of anything. I finished my beer and let the bottle fall to the brick floor. I cried and mumbled something incoherent about being sorry and chambered a round into my 9mm pistol; it felt good in my hands, cold steel swift and smooth. As I went to release the safety, my phone rang, and I was confused. I answered it. It was an old friend. He had a dream that I was hurt and wanted to check to see if I was ok. I wept. “What’s wrong, man?” “Come over…” I couldn’t believe I said those words or what followed, “I need you.” I told him I was homeless and in a park. I told him I was drunk and had my pistol drawn. He told me not to hang up, and I cried, telling him my battery was dying, and he just kept talking; I have no idea what I said or what he said after that. I remember hearing him yelling at others and passing the phone. I had put the safety on, removed the clip, and ejected the chambered round leaving the slide locked to the rear. I left the pistol, clip, and bullet out in front of me, my hands on the table as he arrived. None of them knew about firearms, so I talked them through securing it in a box I had with a cable lock, and the case locked too.
I’d like to say that this was the start of something positive, but this ended up being more, “let’s get him laid and make him happy.” Sadly, this meant more drinking but this time with more “friends.” I didn’t go anywhere without an escort, and they were getting sick and tired of me, and I them. It ended with them finding me passed out in the house. They put me in a shower and discussed leaving me for dead in the woods. A plan they eventually put into action. I remember one of them voicing hesitation and concern but another saying, “Why? He’s just another drunk, homeless Veteran. No one’s going to care.” Yet another made a joke about just letting me kill myself as they laughed and walked out of the woods. I begged again for death but was too hopeless and helpless to do anything about it.
The next morning I awoke groggy, confused, and hurting from the throws of withdrawal. The sun, even through the dense oaks and Spanish moss beating me down with scorching heat reminding me of my dehydration, and yet I rose and began the long journey home. This last statement is funny to me now, home and the journey home. Years later, I would connect with Odysseus in the Odyssey by Homer in my analysis and spend over a year analyzing this sequence of events and my long journey home. But here, I’ll conclude with me walking out of those woods and being sober every day since. I gave up smoking too. I started seeking therapy and tried several forms: individual, groups, trips, encounters, counseling, and analysis. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. And while I was abandoned by those who ‘saved me,’ I am still thankful for their having been there for me in a time of need.
I don’t know why it happened, but I am grateful for it. It’s not a very pleasant or glamorous story, and the ending is still unwritten. I am still longing for and seeking ‘home.’ Like Odysseus, I have encountered many obstacles and perils along the way. This is why I have come to love the parable of the Good Samaritan and believe that in Jesus’ telling, we are meant to put ourselves not in the Samaritan’s role but in the victims’. You can read more in my theological blog here. This is why I choose to thank G-d for every act of serendipity. The strange, the weird, the unknowing and unanswerable events and encounters which put us in another’s path or drawing them into ours. I share this today to highlight that even bad friends can be good servants for G-d. That even if you think you can’t help, that nothing you say or do would be right, that you actually can help. If you have someone on your mind or in your thoughts, reach out to them. Don’t know what to say; it doesn’t actually matter. If someone reaches out to you and you don’t know what to do, follow your heart, your gut, do what you would want someone to do for you. Be a true and trusty friend; it matters a lot.