I Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely
On an August morning almost a year ago, I was struggling with a particular chapter in the new book (The Rewired Brain) that I was writing entitled, “What it Means to be Human.” Toothbrush in hand, I stared at my reflection in the mirror as I contemplated all of the different aspects of the human condition. Was it possible to sum up the essence of human existence in one chapter, in light of over four thousand years of literature on this topic?
I am so fortunate to have grown up in a small tobacco farming community at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. I can still picture my dad walking into the house after a long day’s work out in the tobacco fields. Even though Detroit, the home of Motown, was seemingly a million miles away in distance and culture, my daddy introduced me to rhythm and blues heaven right there in rural North Carolina. On any given day, the smooth voices of the Temptations, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes would croon from the record player until the sky was pitch-black and crickets chirped. I still love Motown so as I get ready to head to the Med Center each day, I blast the classic soul and R & B Pandora stations.
On that August morning, I had turned on my iPad and tuned it to Pandora’s “Old Soul Radio” station. A desperate refrain from a 1974 song covered by Main Ingredient repeated itself incessantly through the speakers: “I just don’t want to be lonely.” As I brushed my teeth, my thoughts centered on the complexity of our extraordinary human minds and struggles. In the midst of these thoughts, the previously dulled melodies of this first song of the day sounded louder than my introspection. Suddenly, the significance of the song and particularly the refrain came into focus: What it means to be human is to struggle with anguishing isolation, a desperate need to be in relationships, and an often-tumultuous journey to find a solution to our loneliness.
As a scientist, I aspire to understand thing at their most fundamental level. The famed inventor Elon Musk has said “You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there.” Aristotle defined it as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” No matter how intellectually sophisticated we are, I believe a basis of our human condition is simply and elegantly stated in the Main Ingredient 1974 song, “I just don’t want to be lonely.” In fact, most of us spend our lives trying to overcome the prison of our loneliness through connections and relationships with others, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. We search for meaning. We seek to belong. We desire relationship. We long to cure our loneliness. We question the mysteries of the spiritual life. We come face-to-face with the looming shadow of death. All these aspects of our humanity drive us to find answers that will alleviate our pain.
Enter Africa. A decade ago during a difficult period of my life, I took my first trip to Africa. Partnering with the charitable organization Samaritan’s Feet, our team traveled to eight locations around a community in South Africa over the course of 10 days, helping orphans affected by HIV/AIDS. At the time, this disease had wiped out a generation of young parents. There were twenty thousand orphaned children in that community alone. Our group brought food, water, shoes, and deworming medications for nearly two thousand orphans during our 10-day visit.
Before leaving the U. S., I am almost embarrassed to admit that I had not given the trip much thought. I travel often, and while I had never been to Africa, I thought the visit to this great continent was, at a minimum, an item to check off my bucket list. My lack of introspection prior to the trip probably had to do with the intense pressure and anxiety I was under both at home and at work. I felt depressed, empty and very lonely.
After 30 long hours of travel by air and van, we found ourselves in South Africa at a small Bible college surrounded by a 15-foot-high barbed wire fence in the middle of a large shantytown called Masoyi. Following a few hours of sleep, we were welcomed with a hearty breakfast and a devotional by Manny Ohome, a large African man with a big smile. Manny was originally from Nigeria, had moved to the U. S. to play college basketball, became a very successful businessman, and now was president of Samaritan’s Feet.
Though I can’t remember much about the devotional, I will never forget what this man said to me right after it. We had not yet been formally introduced, but for reasons I did not understand at the time, he picked me out of the crowd and walked straight toward me. Looking me square in the eyes, Manny said, “God told me that you are about to be messed up!”
Taken aback, I stared back at him as if he were crazy. I didn’t know what he meant by his bold statement. Who did he think he was? Obviously, he did not know who I was, an NIH-funded scientist with well over a hundred manuscripts and faculty positions at prestigious institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Wake Forest University.
Two days later, Manny’s prophetic words became reality. Our group traveled to a banana plantation. I cannot explain what happened the moment I stepped off the bus and my feet touched down on the red African soil, but I immediately sensed my life would forever be changed at this time and by this place. As I turned my head to scan the landscape, my eyes first fell on the hundreds of children confined behind a tangled and rusty barbed wire fence. The older ones stuck their heads through the sharp coils to get a better look at the “rich” Americans walking toward them. I noticed off to the side a group of about fifty infants, likely two years old and under, sitting in muddy sewer water. Some were playing, splashing about in the mosquito-infested puddle. But most were crying, wailing at the top of their lungs.
I was inexplicably drawn to one particular child who appeared to be about two-years-old. His eyes were deep yellow from liver failure as a result of AIDS and tuberculosis. His face badly distorted from a birth defect and the ravages of malnutrition. He was crying, but only halfheartedly, as he had cried for so long without anyone paying attention. I asked the “granny,” an older woman in charge of the smaller kids, the name of the child. She shook her head and shrugged. She didn’t know. That is when I realized none of the hundreds of children behind the barbed wire had a name. That took my breath away.
Staring at the tearful baby, my instinct was to scoop him up in my arms. But as we locked eyes, I thought with fear, “I can’t hold him. There’s too much of a risk.” As a biomedical researcher, I knew the risk of contracting a disease from fluids seeping from every part of his body.
In that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt a powerful yearning. Let me say that I had always been the one in the crowd who scoffed with scientific arrogance whenever I heard someone say they heard the voice of God. But standing there, staring at a malnourished, crying baby in the sweltering African heat, I sensed God asking me two questions, “Who are you?” And then, “Whose are you?” I believe those two questions changed my life forever.
I believe the situation and the questions were a reminder to me of my humanity. I was connected to this child through the family of the human race in ways I could not possibly comprehend. In showing love to this child and others roaming around the banana plantation, I was showing love to the entire human race, and that included myself. The question “Whose are you?” prompted me to step up to a life of action that moved well beyond mere words, theology, and religious tradition. I had a responsibility to provide unconditional love to the universe and somehow I realized that if I did, the universe and God, its maker would give me love back and the keys to my prison of loneliness.
I picked up the child from the muddy water, wiped his face with my shirt, and pressed his face against mine. Holding his emaciated body tight, I softly sang the same lullaby my mom had sung to me. “Bye oh baby, oh bye, oh baby.” Almost immediately, the little guy stopped crying and looked right into my eyes. And for the first time, I saw the face of God. My perspective that everything was meaningless dissipated, and in its place, a new one of purpose stepped in. My dear African brother Manny was right. God had “messed me up”—messed up in the most meaningful way possible that changed the trajectory of my life.