I’ve written before about how I grew up in a family neighborhood that included seven families. My grandparents, Tom and Effie Williams, lived next door to my parents. The other families in the neighborhood were made up of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
When it wasn’t raining outside, most of the mothers in the neighborhood did not tolerate children being in their homes for very long. If we were in a home watching TV and the weather was tolerable, the mother of the house would usually turn off the TV and make us go outside. My cousins and I spent most of our time outdoors.
There was a huge tree in the neighborhood and for years we competed with each other as to who could climb the highest. We proved how high we were able to climb by carving our initials in the tree at the highest possible point.
All of us became adept at outdoor games such as Hide and Seek, Jumping Rope, and Spud, (a game where players tried to eliminate the others by catching and throwing a ball at each other). We played football, Frisbee, badminton, volleyball, croquet, and Jarts (lawn darts). We set up a baseball diamond on a vacant lot that my dad owned, and two of the houses in the neighborhood had half-sized outdoor basketball courts.
We also spent time in my parents’ in-ground swimming pool. Our favorite games included Marco Polo and Chicken Fighting (where we would get on each other’s shoulders and wrestle until one of us fell into the pool). We also competed with each other to see how long we could hold our breath underwater.
When it was raining, we kept ourselves busy inside, playing numerous board and card games.
When I wasn’t with my siblings or cousins, I kept myself busy by building things out of wood, lifting weights, throwing knives at trees, shooting a bow and arrow, and shooting guns.
Growing up in our family neighborhood was the closest a child could ever get to being in paradise.
Of course, growing up in a family of 17 children also had its own adventures. In a family that size, there was frequent teasing, laughing, arguing, scheming, and manipulation of younger siblings to perform our assigned jobs. There was always so much going on that all of us learned how to thrive in chaos.
Needless to say, our large family and the neighborhood that we lived in provided a very stimulating environment which required all of us to share, get along, cooperate, and create new ways to entertain ourselves.
All that abruptly ended for me in August 1975, when I went away to college. I attended undergraduate school at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. It was the first time that I had ever been on my own, away from home, for an extended period of time.
While I was excited about the new challenges that I was facing, I was extremely lonely. The loneliest day of each week was Sunday, the day that our family had always been together. While I was growing up, on Sundays, we attended Mass together in the morning and then got back together for dinner later in the afternoon. In the evening, we usually made popcorn and sat together in the family room to watch The Wonderful World of Disney.
During my first year of college, there were a lot of days that I wanted to quit and go home. On Sundays, to get my mind off of how lonely I was, I would take long walks and imagine being with my family, cousins, and friends, doing the things that I had always enjoyed doing with them.
During the spring semester of my freshman year, we had a guest speaker in one of my classes who told us about a program that he was in charge of. The program was designed to teach children basic skills that those of us who grew up in stable families took for granted. After his presentation, the speaker asked us to consider signing up as volunteers for his program, to teach underprivileged children the basic skills that were necessary to function normally in society.
I’m not sure why, but I signed up for the program. After that, every Friday, I drove to the facility where the program was taking place and did whatever the supervisor told me to do. My first assignment was to work with a 12-year-old boy who was from a poor, single-parent home. My job was to teach him how to identify and count money.
The boy that I worked with was a good kid with normal intelligence. I was shocked when I learned that he didn’t know what a penny, nickel, dime, or quarter was. He was aware that the coins represented money, but he didn’t know the names of the coins, their value, or how they were used for purchasing things. I didn’t know where to start. How do you explain to a young, inexperienced boy what a quarter is?
I had trouble identifying with his situation. When I was 12 years old, I had my own paper route and a checkbook that I reconciled every month, when the bank statement came in the mail.
As I worked with the boy each week to teach him about money and to help him develop his math skills, an amazing thing happened. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and being lonely. Why? Because my mind was now focused on how grateful I was for what God had given me. Instead of thinking of myself, I thought about the boy I was helping. I also thought about all the underprivileged children who were destined for a life of uncertainty and struggle, because they were not fortunate enough to grow up in stable families where their parents and the other people around them taught them the basics that they needed to grow into mature, productive adults.
After going through the experience of teaching the boy how to identify and count money, I realized that one of the formulas for dealing with loneliness was to reach out and help others who were less fortunate than I was. The very act of helping others who were in desperate need forced me to stop thinking about myself and to focus on the people I was helping.
There’s something magical about reaching out to others who are in need. It’s magical because of the way that God created us. He created us to personally benefit when we voluntarily provide assistance to others who are in need. Reaching out to help others creates spiritual electricity that lights up our emotions and our sense of well-being. Without the spiritual electricity that is created when we help others, our emotions and sense of well-being can easily drift into darkness and despair.
Several years after my experience of teaching the boy how to identify and count money, I realized that the Catholic Church already had the formula that I had discovered for conquering loneliness. The name of that formula is the “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.”
As a reminder, the corporal works of mercy are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy are: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish the sinner, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the sorrowful, and pray for the living and the dead.
Today, any time that I meet somebody who is hyperfocused on their own depression, loneliness, victimhood, or despair, I try to encourage them to join an organization where they can do volunteer work for people who are less fortunate than they are. I tell them that it’s always best to start with an organization that has a structure in place for helping others, rather than attempting to figure out on their own how they can consistently and predictably help others who are in need.
For those people who are devout Catholics, in addition to doing volunteer work, I try to persuade them to seek out and assist others who are in need of their guidance, friendship, and prayers.
What I’m suggesting here is contrary to our fallen human nature, which favors selfishness and the avoidance of people who are in need. But such behavior is in direct opposition to one of the primary purposes for which we were created — to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is a very valuable formula for conquering loneliness, depression, and despair. I hope you will use it and teach it to others, which is in and of itself a spiritual work of mercy.