Guelph Mercury: Are you willing to say Hello in There?

Old Lady 2

(Originally published January 22, 2013)

In the aftermath of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., I wonder how many people besides his late mother had reached out to Adam Lanza in the last year or so of his life, perhaps even just to say hello.

Reportedly, Nancy Lanza could barely cope with him in the last months of their lives, so it’s possible they had little rapport. Had neighbours, acquaintances or any men related to Lanza made it a point to check in on him, just to see what was happening or interact with him — even briefly?

There are indications that Lanza may have been on the autism spectrum, and therefore uncomfortable with social contact. But the question is still worth asking if anyone besides his mother had made an attempt to check on him or connect.

Maybe. But I doubt it.

After the mass shooting, like most other startling crimes, you could have scripted the main refrain of police and people who knew Lanza that he was a loner. In other words, few people saw him much, and if they did, they likely avoided him.

Most of us rarely reach out to people we believe are different, troubled or a little scary. It’s easy to speculate now that if someone had, perhaps Lanza’s troubles could have been detected and 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School (and Lanza’s mother and himself) would still be alive today, but it leads to a wider discussion about isolation.

When tragedy strikes, whether it’s a shooting or even a minor crime, the protagonist is often isolated, shunned or neglected, especially if he or she was mentally ill or considered “weird.”

A growing sense of isolation in our culture — due in part to family break-ups, living patterns and personal technology — is making us increasingly disengaged and disconnected from our own families, communities and those on the margins.

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, I got thinking about the song Hello In There by John Prine, which muses about the loneliness of old age. In the final chorus, he asks “So if you’re walking down the street sometime/And spot some hollow ancient eyes/ Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare/As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”

I believe that if we said “hello in there” a little more often, we might occasionally lighten a lonely heart, turn a bad mood around and possibly make a connection. We may even spot someone who needs some help, or a situation that should be checked out.

So why not say hello and genuinely ask, “How are you?” And then really listen to the answer.

Well, I don’t do it, or at least not enough.

When the opportunity arises, I’ll often rationalize that I’m too busy to stop. I’m also afraid of what might be said, what I might learn, that I might feel compelled to do something — like offer to help. Worse, I might become “involved” in someone’s mess. It requires being open to someone, becoming vulnerable.

But when I do allow myself to stop and really talk, most times there’s a nice payoff — for me and, I believe, for the other person.

A few months ago, I was walking my dog and I came across an elderly neighbour who I was quite surprised to see far down the street from his house. We exchanged hellos. My instinct was to keep walking. But I caught myself, stopped and as bright sunshine beamed down on us, we chatted for about five minutes, mostly about our wonderful dogs, past and present.

His craggy face was smiling and radiant. Afterwards I felt warm, buoyant. I thought later that it was good to know that my old neighbour appeared in good health.

It also occurred to me that if I had sensed he was suffering from dementia and had wandered unsafely from his house, I could have helped avert a possible tragedy. But if I’d kept walking, I would have missed the signals.

It’s worth considering the next time you feel like crossing the street to avoid someone that instead, you might stop and say “hello in there.”

Tim O’Connor is a writer and communications professional who lives in Rockwood. He can be reached

Photo: flickr/Titoy’ 


About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!