In the movie, A Man Called Otto, the main character played by Tom Hanks is in despair following his wife’s death and a forced retirement. The antithesis to his character, a woman named Marisol played by Mariana Treviño, is a young Latinx mother of two, who moves in across the street in a neighborhood Otto once loved, but where he now refuses to have any relationship with his neighbors.
In my favorite scene of the movie, Marisol, furious with Otto’s refusal to connect with anyone, shouts at him: “You can’t do it by yourself!”
She’s talking about life, about the difficult, tragic, joy-filled lot of it, and her conviction that no one can navigate it without help. But Otto remains closed off, until gradually Marisol, her family, and other neighbors begin to show him life can be transformed when we open our hearts to each other.
I have been thinking a lot about community, about where and how to find it. We live in a time and a culture where opportunities for true community are increasingly rare. This will date me, but I can remember my mother and her friends getting together to work on a quilt for a baby shower or for a wedding gift, how they shared their lives and listened to each other during those quiet, meditative afternoons. My shy, deeply introverted father found he could be his true self with his Gideon friends. I still remember him standing outside our school grounds, handing out Bibles, and the shock I felt that he seemed to enjoy it.
In my own life, I have found community when I was in college with fellow students, and later in life, in mothers groups, book groups, and writing groups. But mostly I found it at church, just as my parents did. At church, I could bridge the divide between my “outer life” and my “inner life” and feel safe being my true self. The author Parker Palmer writes about our need to bridge this divide to lead whole lives. He writes eloquently about how our inner lives are guided by the soul, which is constantly trying to remind us of our true identity, beloved by God and made in God’s image. But so often our outer lives require us to squelch the inner voice of the soul for the sake of success at work, in society, even in our families. Over time, Palmer writes, if we continue to allow this divide between our true self—the soul’s self—and the self we project to the world, we will cause harm to ourselves and to others. This is the path Otto is on at the beginning of the movie. A rupture is coming.
I experienced such a rupture when I went through a divorce after thirty years of marriage. In the wake of it, I began to see the inconsistencies between the outer life I thought was real and my inner life. What helped me heal in the midst of despair was a small, life-giving community of close friends and family members who picked up the phone at a moment’s notice, invited me to dinner when I was all alone, and sent cards and flowers to remind me of hope and beauty in the world. But mostly, they listened. Unlike Job’s friends who were full of advice and remonstration, my friends agreed to simply be present to bear witness as I journeyed through grief and sought to reconcile my outward reality with my inner one.
During this time, only a few people at church knew about my divorce. I could not talk about it beyond the small circle that I had. But one day after church service, a young friend asked after me. I had once driven the carpool that took him and some of his classmates to confirmation class. Like Otto and Marisol, our backgrounds were very different. I am a white, middle-aged woman, the granddaughter of European immigrants. He is a young, Black man who sought refugee status in our country with his family as a child. When he asked how I was, his sincere inquiry prompted me to tell the truth.
He expressed to me the deep sorrow he felt. We talked for a few more moments, and then I left. Then something unexpected happened. Weeks later, he sent me a text. When I didn’t respond, he called me. He said he just wanted to know how I was doing. The last time he texted, he sent this message.
“I hope that you’re trusting God will walk you through your dark valley all the way to the finish line. He won’t leave you in the dark.”
He won’t leave you in the dark.
I clung to those words.
Parker Palmer writes that to be in community doesn’t mean rescuing someone or trying to dissuade them of their feelings. It means to be present, to give space and time to help them listen to their inner teacher, the soul, and to do this without abandoning them.
In the ensuing months, I began to see glimmers of light in the darkness, just as my young friend said I would. Thanks to him and the care of others who walked with me, I experienced, like Otto, the life-giving, transformative power of community.