Wilson!!

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18)

The recent pandemic has reinforced our knowledge that it is not good for humans to be alone. Our daughter-in-law is a very strong and self-aware introvert. Several months into the pandemic she joked that even a committed introvert like herself had to admit that she was missing human contact. Far more seriously we know that the hiatus from play dates and school has had serious mental health consequences on many children and youth who are behind in their social development and their ability to communicate in ways that are not mediated by technology.

Yes, it is true that technology has helped bridge the human contact gap in significant ways with virtual learning and digital meeting apps like zoom, but anyone who has spent much time using those tools will tell you that kind of meeting or teaching and learning is just not as good as face to face contact.

I was reminded of a wonderful movie that explored the theme of human loneliness when I found this golf ball in my bag last week. I led a men’s retreat several years ago where we watched the 2000 Tom Hanks film, “Cast Away” and then explored what the movie said about the human experience.

In that movie Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a harried FedEx executive, who is cast away as the lone survivor of a company cargo plane crash in the Pacific. The good news is he survived the crash. The bad news is he is washed ashore on a small deserted island where he is totally and completely alone. He manages to survive for years by creatively making use of a few items in packages that wash ashore from the plane crash.

One of the seemingly most useless items that floats into Noland’s island home is a brand new Wilson volleyball. No net, just the ball, and while beach volleyball is a real sport, it does require more than one person. That ball however soon becomes the most important factor in helping Noland maintain his sanity as multiple attempts to sail off the island in makeshift boats end in disaster and even a suicide attempt fails.

Noland discovers a way to meet the need for “human” contact without internet, cell phone, smoke signals, or even written communication. He turns the Wilson volleyball into Wilson, his friend and companion. He paints a face on the volleyball and regularly talks to Wilson about his plight. In the most poignant scene when Noland finally manages to push and paddle beyond the breakers and put out to sea on a makeshift sailboat, his buddy Wilson is washed overboard by a large wave and slowly drifts further and further away. Noland can only cry plaintively, “Wilson! Wilson!” as his faithful friend disappears from his sight.

Our men’s retreat was held at a church camp, and one of the men found a Wilson volleyball in a closet in the lodge where we were meeting. That ball, of course, became our mascot for the weekend, sitting with us as we discussed the film, coming to meals with us, and sleeping on one of the bunks in the dormitory-style room where we slept.

Now I have my own Wilson Jr. golf ball sitting on my desk to remind me again that it is not good to be alone. (And, it helps our bond that I played some very good golf with my Wilson, and he didn’t desert me like so many balls have by disappearing into the woods or splashing down into a water hazard.). Please understand, as an introvert I still regularly need and enjoy solitude. Zoom does make many things easier or even possible, like book clubs, meetings over distances without time-consuming and expensive travel, and especially regular contacts with distant friends.

But nothing, not even a lovable volleyball, can meet our basic need for human contact. My therapist says touch is the first and most basic form of human communication. Research has shown that infants who receive an adequate amount of loving touch not only thrive, but those who are not held and touched literally die.

We can see this phenomenon in other species, many of whom mate for life. Unfortunately many Americans have lost sight of the need for meaningful human contact. Our myth of rugged individualism has turned far too many of our human interactions into a transactional, self-centered dance of using people for our own profit and benefit.

Our consumer driven economy and our fear of an always uncertain future have convinced too many of us that we can never have enough material wealth to feel secure. Perhaps the silver lining in our current inflationary anxiety is that we will learn like Chuck Noland did to be satisfied and live with what we have. Powerful story telling like “Cast Away” is a way of teaching us those life lessons vicariously so we don’t have to actually be stranded on a desert island or isolated in a pandemic to learn them.

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