The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?

One thought on “The lessons of George Bell

  1. Have you ever watched episodes of Hoarders, Hoarding: Buried Alive, Clean Sweep or any of the other t.v. shows featuring hoarders? Hoarding is a disorder, it shares components of obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as depression. Relatives of hoarders often find it difficult to share living spaces with someone who fills up every inch of it with random things, children of hoarders have been taken away by the state for their own protection. As a result of hoarding items, rat and insect infestations are common. For the most part though, hoarders manage to ‘not see’ anything they don’t want to see. It’s only when their family members say “choose: this stuff or us” do they begin to see what they’ve done. To us, a hoarder might look like a person who is alone with nothing but a massive pile of junk to show for it. To him or her, they are surrounded by memories, their kid’s first art, favorite childhood possessions, a gift from an old friend, something inherited from another relative and these items are as good as having their family members with them. Throwing something away is like discarding a precious memory – and that’s the most difficult thing of all for them. The circumstances of George Bell’s life were as such that he was either never challenged to choose (he didn’t have a family or church, for whatever reason, not everyone does, you know) or he chose stuff over family every single time. At that point, there was nothing that could be done for him. For those of us who know that our family is genetically predisposed to being hoarders and happen to have at least one in the family, the most we can do is to be aware of our living spaces and try to keep things tidy (hoarding never happened all at once, but a little bit over a long time) and reach out to our relatives who are hoarders and show them that sometimes it’s better to choose people over stuff. It might not be a good idea to say “Chose: family or stuff!” but showing up, reaching out, inviting them to reunions, to the movies, etc. might be a good way of drawing them out slowly. They need support more than they need stuff, they just don’t know it because most people walk away – and that’s why they trust in stuff. You set something down and it’s right where you left it the next time you need it.

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