Dr Bill: Making a difference

Dr Bill Webster

One of the best loved songs of the 20th century was The Sound of Silence, written and performed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. It begins with the line Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. (I’ll bet you sang that as you read it!)

But here’s the trivia question. Who or what was the “darkness” referred to as “my old friend”?

Art Garfunkel met Sandford (Sandy) Greenberg while teenagers at Columbia University in New York and they became firm friends, promising to always be there for each other in times of trouble. Little did they know how soon that pact would be put to the test. When Sandy suddenly lost his eyesight after his optic nerve was destroyed by glaucoma, he decided to drop out of university.

But Art Garfunkel said: “Look, we made a pact that we would be there for the other in times of crises. I will help you.” Together they returned to Columbia University, where Sandy became totally dependent on Art’s support.

It was Art Garfunkel who called himself “Darkness” as a show of empathy, Sandy recalls in his book. “Art would come in and say: ‘Darkness is going to read to you now.’ He was really saying, ‘I want to be together where you are, in the black.’ He would take me to class and back. He would take me around the city. He altered his entire life to accommodate me.”

Sandy not only graduated, but went on to study for a master’s degree at Harvard and Oxford.

Six decades later the two men remain best friends, and Art Garfunkel actually credits Sandy with transforming his life. “With Sandy, my real life emerged,” says the singer. “I became a better guy in my own eyes, and began to see who I was – somebody who gives to a friend.”

I was challenged by this story, asking myself if I have been a friend to someone in a dark place due to COVID-19. Social distancing and isolation are having significant impacts on mental health and emotional wellbeing, and we should all be concerned about how we can make a difference.

In this deeply challenging year, it has often been said ‘we are all in this together’. But sadly, some have had to face their challenges alone.

One of the biggest stressors is the fact we do not know how long the lockdowns will last. We are already seeing people becoming less supportive and less compliant the longer the situation continues. While some are still worried about social activities, others are openly partying and hanging out, despite the dangers and warnings.

Perhaps one challenge of this situation is that the size of the problem simply seems too great. It feels like our contribution would be too insignificant to make an impact. But remember the story of the starfish on the beach: One day, a man was walking along a beach strewn with thousands of starfish washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he noticed a young boy eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

The man eventually asked what the boy was doing. Without looking up, he replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir.”

The man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said: “I made a difference to that one!”

As our world seeks to adapt, we have to recognise we can’t do everything at once. Loneliness and isolation won’t be solved instantly, but we can always make a difference for “that one”.

Everyone’s challenge is, “Who can I reach out to? With whom could I make a pact to be there in times of trouble? Can I knock on a neighbour or friend’s door and while social distancing, offer assistance? Could I pick up medications for vulnerable individuals or drop off groceries? Who could I invite into a Zoom network with weekly meetings by video chat?”

Every individual who helps people feel “all in this together” builds a “bridge over troubled water” in Art Garfunkel’s words, and takes another step towards turning this situation around.

So never underestimate the difference you can make when you care enough to reach down, pick someone up, and help get them back to where they need to be.

Read more of Sandy’s inspiring story in his book, Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life by Sandford D Greenberg.

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