It’s a Saturday evening and my oldest son and I are working the dinner shift at a homeless shelter. We’re staffing the beverage table with friends, enjoying the challenge of keeping up with the demand for drinks, working hard, and laughing even harder. And then I see him.
Or, rather, I see the back of him.
I see the back of a young boy—about my son’s age—already walking away from the table. While we were trading jokes and jabs, he had quietly approached us, picked up a soda, and is now returning to his seat in the crowd. I watch him rejoin his family—two parents and two younger siblings. I’d been at the shelter for ninety minutes, and I hadn’t even noticed them. While serving them, I hadn’t seen them.
There’s more than one way to be homeless, isn’t there?
Being houseless is one thing; being unseen and lonely is another thing altogether.
Have You Ever Been Lonely?
Have you ever had something to say, something so close to your secret center your heart would burst if you didn’t share it? Have you ever wanted someone to listen? And has your hidden heart ever cracked when the ears that mattered most were too full of other noise to take in your treasure?
Have you ever wanted mom or dad to watch you? Have you ever toiled for hours over a Lego creation or spent days choreographing your dance routine? Have you ever revealed your creation to the only people who matter, and have they ever simply glanced and grunted? Have you ever simply died a little inside?
Have you ever stood on center stage with a hundred pairs of eyes looking at you and a hundred pairs of hands clapping for you and wondered how so many people could think they know you and not really know you at all?
Have you ever watched one, lone, radiant autumn leaf slowly twirl and spin its way to the cooling ground? Have you ever been that leaf? Have you ever felt like your whole life was twirling and spinning downward and you were falling alone? Have you ever watched a falling leaf and ached with the loneliness of it?
Have you ever wished someone would see you or welcome you or hold you or hug you or protect you or defend you or touch you or believe in you? This is being human. And the quiet quest to become unlonely is human, too. We have a word for the moment in which we are finally seen and unlonely finally happens.
The word is home.
A Little Less Homeless
On a Saturday night, I watch the young boy eat dinner with his family. His head is bowed and he eats quietly as his parents manage his younger siblings. I watch him, and he breaks my heart. Though, the truth is, he isn’t really breaking it—my heart is already fractured by my own loneliness. Like every human heart. The boy just makes my cracks ooze a little more. So, as my cracks ooze and the demand for drinks dwindles, my son and I grab a slice of cake, wade into the crowd, and sit down with the family to share dessert.
We break chocolate bread together.
We talk and our kids banter about the things kids banter about and they giggle and the laughter sounds like coming home. For a little while, at least one person feels a little less homeless, and that person is me.
When Home Happens
A house and a home are not the same thing. A house is four walls and a roof and a shower, a little bit of warmth on a cold night and a soft place to lay our weary heads. A house keeps the weather at bay. But home. Home keeps the loneliness at bay.
Home is not a building. Home is not the town on your birth certificate or the town on your driver’s license or the birthplace of your ancestors or the dwelling place of your living relatives. Indeed, home is not a place at all.
Home is an experience.
Home is a moment in which grace happens to us—a wrinkle in time in which we are really, truly seen and surprised by a flash boom of acceptance and belonging and connection. Home is the space within us and around us that expands when we are known deeply and embraced completely by grace.
In other words, home can happen anywhere.
Home happens when someone looks past our ugly and into our beautiful. Home happens when we make a disaster of things and no one flinches. Home happens when someone cares for us enough to make us feel rare instead of strange. Home happens when we can be inconvenient and still have a place to belong. Home happens when someone names the good things we are. Home happens in bedtime routines and family rituals, in the embrace of a friend or the arms of a lover, and when two strangers honor the humanity in each other. Home happens at the end, when our bodies are failing us but the love surrounding doesn’t.
Home can happen in a moment of silence.
Home can happen when the wind through the trees feels like a holy embrace.
Home can happen when we learn how to love who we are.
Home can happen anywhere, because grace can happen anywhere and the secret to home is as simple and as sublime as this: home is where the grace is. In the presence of grace, we can trust we aren’t a single leaf falling lonely; we are part of a great shower of autumn leaves torn loose by a mighty wind, and we are all falling together.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.