How do we break into the hollowed-out lives of those sitting alone in the hidden places of our communities, whose only company is the ever-present television screen? By Michael Manning
Sam sits on his sofa, watching. He is stick-thin, wrapped in his over-large coat like a shroud, gloved. The walls of his freezing flat, mostly bare, are tanned yellow with nicotine. His nose drips. He is so depressed he barely goes outside. He has not spoken to anyone since I saw him a month before.
In another room, much brighter but with walls just as bare, sits Joe, on a sofa smaller than the television screen facing him. He has a type of dementia – Korsakoff's – brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. He does not know where he is. A carer he does not know or trust sits in an armchair, watching. Whenever she leaves he whispers to me, “Why am I here?”
In a tiny hole in a boarding house William hunches on his bed, shuffles to make room for me, and watches. There are no ways to cook or wash in his building. There is noise everywhere. He is sinking into oblivion and he knows it.
These are a few of the men that I visit as part of the work of Graih, a charity seeking to serve the homeless and those in insecure accommodation. As nurturing relationships is at the heart of what we do, I often visit people over the long-term, seeking transformation.
On a visit to any of these men, tucked away in different rooms for different reasons, I sit and try to talk, often not knowing what to say. My gaze is always drawn by a common presence in their lives: the television. The flickering screen seems more alive than the wraiths sat silently before it. Adverts, bright and surreal and happy, dance like mirages.
A social work Assistant recently told me that she now considers television a necessity. It's a lifeline for people so isolated that they have little other human contact. It provides entertainment, distraction, company. It passes the time as they wait, and watch. I don't know what they are waiting for; they probably don't either.
The stories we tell ourselves shape our world. They give us the lenses through which we see everything else, the language we use to interpret reality. Stories are powerful. They occupy our mental, emotional and spiritual landscapes, forming us in ways we cannot fully grasp.
I wonder what sort of formation, or deformation, is taking place in the rooms I sit in, trying to keep my gaze on desiccated humanity rather than the concoction of doom, sex, violence and laughter rolling across the screen. Media mediating...everything. One mediator between God and man.
I wonder how it is that people can be so isolated that they have nothing left and no one to sit with them. No family; no friends; perhaps a paid carer, a stranger, a health worker. Nothing left but the screen, ever-present, uncomplaining, burbling.
I wonder whether, somewhere and somehow, the church has abrogated its responsibility to know and love those on the edge (or even to be, in some way, edge-people ourselves). Whether we've allowed other stories about life and the good and the true and the beautiful to come in and swallow us all up. Whether our stories are strong enough to withstand the relentless anodyne onslaught, let alone paint a glorious vision of an alternative. I wonder what we're formed by. What reality we inhabit.
What does the existence of these men say about our common humanity? When relationships are stripped away and human contact supplanted by the necessity of a screen, what remains? Where is the image of God? How do we break into these hollowed-out lives? Speak to those forced into this exile, and those who choose it (and it's usually an unhappy mixture of both)?
Sam, Joe and William sit, and watch, and wait. A few well-meaning words from me and most others bounce off the impervious, brittle shells. What's an hour of conversation in a month going to do before hundreds of hours of television? It's lost beneath the cacophony of the next crisis and adverts trying to sell loans.
Their lives exist in the hidden places of our communities, behind closed doors, anonymous and away. They are oblivious to the machinations of health strategies, mental health campaigns, political wrangling, community building and ecclesial mission. They have no voice to be heard. No hope, but neither despair. Just...distraction. Watching. Waiting.
*Names have been changed.
Picture: Watching television / Freeimages.com
Michael Manning is a co-ordinator of Graih (www.graih.org.im), a charity serving those who are homeless and in insecure accommodation on the Isle of Man. He lives with his family in a shared household and belongs to Broadway Baptist Church in Douglas
He is the author of No King, But God - Walking as Jesus Walked