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John Doe No. 24



"Alone. Yes, that's the key word. The most awful word in the english tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym."-Stephen King

It's easy to feel alone in the world, misunderstood, unloved. We all must go through those long nights. We make drastic changes in our lives, often in a desperate fight to not feel lonely. Loneliness has been the curse that caused many bad decisions throughout history. It is also something that can teach and inspire us to better ourselves.

The definition of loneliness is both subjective and objective. How you perceive the world determines how you define it. And our darkest, deepest of emotions, such as loneliness, is no exception.

I would like to share with you a story I heard from Mary Chapin Carpenter's song "John Doe No. 24" I discovered it in the late 90's, and the story behind it starts in 1945 in Jacksonville, Illinois. A black teenager is seen roaming the streets. He is deaf and mute and seemingly all alone. When the police find him, they decide he is mentally ill and lock him away in a mental institution. He will spend the rest of his life in places like this. He once scribbled the name "Lewis". That's the only clue we have as to his name.

The environment of mental institutions at that time was very rough. He developed some abnormal behavior as a result. They gave him many drugs, which eventually caused him to go blind. It wasn't until later in his life that people were assigned to help him. He got close to each of them, but suffered severe depression every time one of those people left him.

"The years kept passing as they passed me around from one state ward to another. Like I was an orphan shoe from the lost and found, always missing the other."- Mary Chapin Carpenter.

As the years went by, things improved in the mental health institutions, and John found more caregivers, and even an assisted living facility where he could live somewhat independently. He was very much loved by everyone who took care of him. Sometimes, they would bring a jazz band to play for the patients. John danced his heart out. He loved the vibrations that he could feel as the band played on. He was warm, funny and compassionate. The prejudices of the 40's and a flawed mental health system shattered many of his hopes and dreams. But he kept his spirit intact.

"What we see, over and over again, is that there's a resiliency of the human spirit that is not going to be destroyed. It's not going to just survive, it's going to win. John is a good example of that."-Sister Bernadette Wynne. Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults

In 1993, John died. He was to be buried in an unmarked grave. Luckily, Mary Chapin Carpenter not only read the obituary and wrote her song about him, but also purchased a tombstone for him. On this tombstone, is one of the lyrics from her song:

"Life's a mystery, so too is the human heart."

I want my first tattoo to be these words.

After the song came out, it inspired David Bakke to find out more about this man, and he interviewed everyone he could find. His book "God knows his name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24" is among my most prized books.

There's lots we can learn from John. We can be thankful for all the people and love that we have in our lives. We can be thankful that the world is not the same as it was in 1945. We can be thankful for the chances and freedoms that we have that John did not. But his story is not just one to teach us gratitude, it's also one to remind us that no matter how hard things get in life, we can pull through and still be that warm, compassionate person that he was. And despite whatever obstacles we face, we can make our hopes and dreams a reality. Growing within and connecting with others is what life is all about. We should not only do it for ourselves, but for those we might be able to help. We should also do it to honor all who came before us and tried, both the ones who came out the other end better off, and for those that just didn't have the strength.

I think about him often. I tell this story to the people I know as much as I can. But the best way to hear the story, is to listen to the song:





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