Wednesday, February 1, 2012


A LOVED ONE IS DIGGING A HOLE and won’t stop digging. The hole is deep and getting deeper; dark and getting darker; lonely and getting lonelier. Friends and family plead with him to stop, but somehow, perversely, they continue to hand him the shovel.

From a distance, it must look like a group of people standing about a job-site, with but one worker laboring at the task. Those standers-by appear to offer suggestions: “Go around the tree root” or “Maybe you can pry out the rock” or “Atta boy!”

To those of close up, it is a crippling, insidious malady, one with no telltale fever or swelling; no tumor or wound or limp. It manifests itself in anti-social actions that push relationships away. Though chastened, friends and family forge forward, trying to get closer, trying to help. But each word is perceived as an affront, and each word receives a pat, curt response; an unequivocal stopper.

An angry frustration sets in.

Those close shy away.

And the hole gets deeper.

RATIONAL BEHAVIOR is a curious thing. What is rational to one may seem crazy to someone else. What seems irrational to many may, in fact, be the only course of action available to another person. A Philosophy Professor who, the next semester was found hanging from an oak in Bidwell Park, once told me that this is how individuals justify suicide. His sentence is the only one I heard in four years of college that still scares the crap out of me some forty years later.

WHAT DEFINES OR PREDICTS rational behavior?

Nature? How one is hard-wired contributes. Most of us are born into the middle of a giant bell-shaped curve labeled “behavior.” There are some who come to this existence with spectrum disorders such as autism and may not relate to the world as others do. Same with folks born with fetal-alcohol syndrome or some sort of genetic predisposition to “different.” These are not indictments, rather, just the way things are. For those nature has gifted differently, parents, teachers, medical professionals, therapists, counselors and psychologists can work – hopefully together – to assist the individual develop frames of reference, context, socialization, and life skills to rise above predispositions over which the individual had, at birth, no control. Success varies. But for most, help is available.

Nurture? Nurture is the sum total of decisions we’ve made and decisions that have been made for us: both good and bad. How one is raised certainly sets the course for how one might ultimately live his or her life. Parents nurture us by making the best decisions they can make given that, going into the matter, parents have no experience parenting until they’re pretty much done parenting.

Beyond the efforts of our parents, our earliest years of schooling and our possible military service, the rest of the decisions are ones we must own. We must, for all practical purposes, nurture ourselves. We can soothe ourselves with a walk in the park or an album of classical music. We can enjoy a beer, watch a movie or make love. All choices. Likewise, the bad business decision we can change if we want to. The sour relationship, we can work on or leave. The feeling that something is holding us back we can treat with education, literature and exposure to ideas that stretch our minds and enrich our perspectives. For most of us, when confronted with doubt or disappointment or tragedy, experience teaches us what works and what does not and where to get help.

For some, however, experience is a poor mentor. Some may salve life’s concerns by blaming the business failure on the actions of forces outside their control like governmental regulation, unfair competition or even “Yelp.” Some may endure a failing relationship knowing that the problems all stem from the partner and that commitments – made when much younger using only part of the necessary data – will somehow payoff in an afterlife somewhere. Some can wrap themselves in an “I know what I know” mindset, implying that the rest of the world lacks their knowledge. The more contemptuous the rationale becomes, the more boisterous their expression, the further away relationships are pushed. Satisfaction seems to be gained by measuring how quickly people desist and back away. What seems irrational to many may, in fact, be the only course of action available to another person.

TRAGICALLY, LONELINESS is contempt's most frequent reward – a reward earned but unwanted. It is the consequence of a choice (or choices) selected from a list of what must have, at the time, seemed to be less palatable ones. And that long-ago decision becomes more difficult to revisit and reverse the deeper in the hole one digs.

All the teachers, doctors, psychologists and counselors can be of little help until the one in the hole is convinced that he is, indeed, in a hole and that the best course of action is to simply put down the shovel and quit digging.

Until then, family members who are supposed to care, supposed to support, find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of what to do or not do, what to say or not say, and how and when to tread or not tread; never knowing whether words or actions will soothe the situation or inflame it; never knowing what words or actions are tantamount to handing down a fresh, new shovel. Nights become sleepless; holiday dinners, torture; and day-to-day lives, never quite far enough away from it.

THERE ARE NO EASY ANSWERS; no easily accessed how-to for help. The only one who can stop digging the hole is him. He can stop or he can die down there.

What the family needs to do is figure out is both simple and simply impossible: how to quit providing the shovel.

Meanwhile, like countless others, all I want is my brother back.

© 2012
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Yep. Lots of sad, tragic truth in this here post.

  2. I'm sitting on the couch here with the whole household downstairs and at the end of this I gasped rather loudly. Everyone looked at me expectantly and I just shook my head and held back tears.

    Very powerful, Uncle Dave. I think we all feel the same way.

  3. I second that, sister. Thank you for saying why I could not say Uncle Dave.

  4. Nature, nurture...the hole is there for all of us. I too have felt the walls of earth surround me and have longed for the shovel to be taken from my hands. I can only thank my family and friends for being there to ask and offer a hand up.
    Brother from another mother.

  5. Mr. B,

    Powerful,profoundly sad.