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MAN OF THE HOUSE | Engage and listen to people outside the comfort zone

He sat across the table from me in a really nice restaurant, long considered the fanciest in our town. We were about the same age, grew up just miles from each other and had lived similar “Beaver Cleaver” childhoods. He tried to smile at me as he looked up from the menu.

“Mike,” he said, “I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I don’t have any money.”

“That’s okay,” I replied. “I invited you tonight. This one’s on me. Order whatever you want.”

I had no idea how difficult his life had become. He wasn’t homeless — yet. He was close.

Some years ago, people likely would have envied my friend’s life, which unraveled in part because of really bad luck. His mental illness intensified, complicating his ability to hold a job. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold onto his home. Without any money a few days earlier, he told me with obvious discomfort, he had rummaged through the trash behind a local pizza joint to find scraps for his dinner.

The waitress set down my spaghetti dinner, then gave him a plate filled with several large pieces of fried chicken. My friend ate like he hadn’t had a meal in days.

I made sure not to stare. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was judging him or pitying him; I didn’t feel judgment or pity. I felt, well, weird. In more than a half-century on earth I never had spent so much time with a person struggling so desperately.

Someone once referred to me as a “mental health activist” rather than a writer primarily on Catholic or faith or spiritual issues. Indeed, I’ve frequently shared the aspects of my life that involve depression, anxiety, suicide and other aspects of mental illness. I’m not shy about that in hopes of erasing a stigma attached to those topics and letting people know they aren’t alone.

But I’d label myself a “people activist” because of the interesting folks I have met the past several decades. Some of those encounters came on a baseball diamond, football field or basketball court. Others happened inside a Catholic church or at prayer group or on a retreat. And yes, some occurred because of shared mental health experiences.

What many people had in common is that they weren’t exactly like me and had stories that needed to be told, situations that needed to be shared because they forced me outside my comfort zone.

The athletes I met in more than 20 years as a sportswriter often came from backgrounds completely unfamiliar to me. Some had experienced cruel racism, others had overcome severe physical obstacles, still others had to deal with the challenge of a broken, unhappy home. I have met humble and Godly women and men who have survived trying times because of their powerful relationships with the Lord.

I am also struck now when I reflect particularly on the past 11 months, during which I have spent about seven months in group therapy with three different groups. In the course of this year, I have gotten to know people whose stories are outside my milieu, men and women who have experienced addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, self-esteem issues, abusive relationships, eating disorders, temptations to self-harm and abuse by clergy.

I listen to their narratives and recently troubling anecdotes. No judgment. No pity. Just admiration. “I’ve never met people like this,” I think.

Yet, I have met such people. We have met such people. At church and at the ballgame and in nice restaurants. In the grocery store and at school and on the job. Walking through the neighborhood and driving down the street and sitting in the movie theater.

They are right there inside our comfort zones. We just don’t notice them. Isn’t it time we did?

Eisenbath is a parishioner at St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles.

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