“Bowl of Oranges” by Bright Eyes

101. Song No. 1,290: “Bowl of Oranges,” Bright Eyes
Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, 2002

I have no problem admitting that Bright Eyes is an acquired taste, especially when it comes to the older stuff. But “Bowl of Oranges” is one of those load-bearing songs that made me fall in love with Conor Oberst’s plaintive bleating while also making the whinier stuff tolerable if not forgivable.

For as relentlessly morose and morbid Bright Eyes can be, “Bowl of Oranges” balances it all out. All of it. All by itself. It’s what happens when a personal journey has such a profound inner impact that it needs to assert itself in the service of others. Personal growth doesn’t mean a damn thing if you’re not lifting up those around you who badly need a hand and an empathetic friend.

As much as I mutter about The West Wing, one of my most favorite shows ever, pulling some milquetoast liberal bullshit when watched through a leftist’s eyes in this most wretched timeline we’ve backslid down, there’s still plenty about it I nostalgically love — particularly a conversation and an adage shared between an alcoholic and a victim of PTSD in a brief but profound exchange: This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by: “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

“Bowl of Oranges” embodies so much of that same solidarity and understanding that’s born from traversing the same hard roads. One of the benefits of living through the tough stuff is finding meaning in your pain, and I don’t think there’s a nobler cause than seizing on that lesson to be a sort of trauma guide who helps mitigate the unnecessary pains of life’s brutally applied catalysts for growth (the sense of overwhelming isolation; the certainty that this only happens to people who deserve the punishment; the lies a sick brain tells itself) to illuminate the whole point and serve as a reminder that this, too, will pass, just as it does for everyone else who finds themselves swallowed up by the yawning void.

Because sometimes all you can do is forge ahead and hope that the way out is the same for everyone. Sometimes you’re just a sturdy shoulder and compassionate ear. Sometimes you can only be there as a quiet but reliable presence that’s just enough to ward off the twisted inner monologue screaming of the existential loneliness that depression has a way of convincing the afflicted they’ve brought on themselves. And it never seems like enough, but being a reliable, understanding constant for someone to moor themselves to when they feel their most untethered can, as anyone who’s been there before can attest to, make all the difference.

No one wants to be lectured to or proselytized at when they’re at their lowest — hell, the energy suck of depression and other invisible hurts makes getting out of bed a herculean effort, let alone running interference on your own downward spiral by reaching out for even the flimsiest hope of help. Being told to get over it or “Just choose to be happy!” or any other of the countless ways well-meaning but cluelessly-doing-more-harm-than-good neurotypicals isn’t the gentle validation and unobtrusive but unwavering comfort someone who’s in the depth of their lowest lows needs. For those reasons and so many others, someone who can relate, who can honor another’s needs, who genuinely wants to help — not for their chance to play hero but out of love — is the most invaluable lifeline.

Sometimes it has to be enough to hold someone’s hand and wait for it to pass together. And there’s nothing like being there when it does: Just like no one knows what it’s like to emerge from the storm both stronger and softer like someone who’s clawed their way out before, there’s nothing like stepping into the light with someone who appreciates the hard-fought journey it took to get here. Having someone to stand staring in awe with you and see the world through the lens of having survived another thing that has broken so many — and for them to finally stand beside you instead of leading you to the way out — is how you learn to be that friend for whoever’s turn down the hole comes next.

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