Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Chance Encounter with Eric & Loneliness

The door is open at the Door Is Open
A few weeks ago I attended a two day retreat at the Door Is Open:
a drop in centre located at 373 East Cordova Street, in the heart of East Vancouver. The Centre supports the needs of hundreds of less fortunate people in the downtown east side. Many of our guests have compounding difficulties such as drug and alcohol addiction, physical and mental handicaps as well as maturing life stages and many other impairments.
The two days were designed to provide spiritual reflection and education while working in the service of those less fortunate. It also provided an opportunity to witness some of the realities of day to day life in Vancouver's Downtown East-side - Canada's poorest jurisdiction.

While I participated in preparing and serving food, walked the neighborhood and listened to various people talk about their day to day realities - it was my experience with a lunch guest named Eric that continues to leave a lasting impact.

It was during the first day - while welcoming some of the guests for lunch that I happened to meet and strike up a conversation with Eric.  Eric was a clean cut "normal" looking guy. I asked Eric if I could sit beside him. He agreed. And we talked.

I learned a lot about Eric in the 30 minutes we spent together.

I learned that Eric attended a Catholic elementary school until certain circumstances, outside of his control, forced him out of his home and to live with his grandma. He spoke fondly of his grandma. While she has long since passed away, Eric still misses his grandma.

We spoke about his high school experience. He explained how he never really had any good friends and "kept to himself". He regrets this.  He talked about feeling alone from an early age.

I asked Eric how life was treating him at the moment.

Eric explained how he recently finished course work and training related to the food industry. He likes to work with people and food.

He explained that for the past year, his housing has been stable. He is worried about the coming months and the uncertainty that is looming.

In a moment of vulnerability, Eric explained that he has goals but they tend to get derailed by this reoccurring cycle of sabotage (my word).  In frustration, he explained how he knows what he needs to do but, for a variety of reasons, he can't get there sometimes. He spoke at some length about how he frequently talks himself out of completing his goals.

Eric told me that he doesn't blame "the system" for his situation.

Eric admitted that he is lonely. Eric has been lonely for most of his life. Eric told me that he : "feels like an alien in my own city"

As he finished lunch, I told Eric that I would be back the next day and that we could chat again if he liked.

We said our "goodbyes"- hoping I could talk to Eric again the next day.

Eric returned the next day. I saw him and sat beside him.  I told him it was great to so see him again.

He told me that my conversation with him the previous day was the best thing that happened to him in a long time.  His honest compliment came as a surprise to me.

He explained how good he felt about recently receiving his "food safe certificate".

Eric explained that his goal for that day was finding a way to register for his "serving it right" certificate. He had two problems - he did't have access to the internet to register for the course and he didn't have the $40 for the course fee.

We brainstormed different ideas to solve his two problems. Ultimately he solved one problem- he could walk a few miles to register in person. His lack of money for the registration fee was another issue.

Eric told me that one of his favorite pastimes was writing poetry. I asked him if he has ever shared his poetry with others. Despite his openness to the idea, he didn't really know how or with whom to share it.

I talked to Eric about how, one day perhaps, he could share his poetry via a blog. I told him how it was free and a great way to share his passion with others. As I was talking I remembered that he didn't have regular access to the internet or a device- what an idiot I am....

We talked more about random stuff.

Lunch was over.

I didn't know what to do next. A simple "goodbye" didn't seem like enough.

I told Eric how privileged I was to have met him. I told him I didn't know if I would ever see him again but hoped that I did.

I wanted to offer Eric a few dollars to help him with his day. Maybe even to pay for his course. I wasn't sure how he would receive it. Would he be offended? Was I offering to make myself feel better? Would he see this as a platitude? Was it a platitude?  Was I disrespecting him? Would the money be used appropriately?

I decided to ask him. "Eric can I offer you a little money to help you with your day?" He immediately resisted. I told him he could use the money to pay for his "serving it right course". He paused. He let me put the money in his hand.
I walked Eric to the door and watched him as he hit the streets of the downtown east side. As I watched, I felt a little embarrassed and inadequate.
I felt inadequate because the best I could offer Eric, as he walked away, was money. What he really needed was more of my time.

My two days in the downtown east side of Vancouver taught me one valuable lesson. Despite all the poverty, health and addiction problems that exist in that part of my city- there is one more rampant epidemic that is ravaging the lives so many........loneliness.

Eric brought me face to face with the tragic impact of perpetual loneliness.

I think I owe it to Eric and all those suffering from loneliness, to do all that I can in my role as a Catholic educator and parent to prevent and ease the pain of loneliness.

Dear Eric:
I am sorry for your loneliness. I am embarrassed that I didn't offer you anything more to take away your loneliness.

I will return to the Door Is Open in the hope of meet up with you again... 


  1. Johnny, an unbelievable post. I can understand your feelings of is nice, but you're right what Eric needs more than anything is connection to people. I found it very telling the way he responded to your first interaction. My guess people who are in a cycle of poverty or hopelessness need to feel that someone cares or is in their corner. Perhaps that feeling or knowledge can help generate the resiliency they need to break the cycle. Thanks for sharing this personal reflection. Take care buddy.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and share Darcy. As someone who is surrounded by the love and company of so many acquaintances, friends and family meeting Eric made me realize how much I take this for granted. Another piece that resonates is that Eric's loneliness began when he was at school. As a teacher I can't help but wonder how many students are suffering from loneliness and how we have a obligation to empower them and support them - to, like you say, make them more resilient and provide a community of support.
    Thanks again and I look forward to connecting face to face soon - I hope :)