The Plagued Parent

posts about surviving our children, the Baby Boomers who raised us, and everyone else with an opinion...

Politics of Estrangement

91fe601f157d3de2b2f55df152e9b920estrangement  (n.) to turn away in feeling or affection; make unfriendly or hostile; alienate the affections of; to remove to or keep at a distance.

It happens all the time. It happens in big ways and small. Rifts between family members; the coldness between acquaintances; the silence between couples. It happens and it has devastating consequences.

In our fast-paced and electronically dominated culture digital estrangement happens frequently as well — blocked from social media, unfriended, denied community. I suppose in some instances such removal of an individual may be warranted but most of what I notice seems to be done out of spite.

To deny someone’s existence, their presence, is to deny their humanity; it is to deny kindness. We all do this to some degree.

We really should not.

On my way to the bridge that takes me off Aquidneck Island I have to stop at an intersection; it is beneath an overpass. A concrete median island separates the road, and on that median is a “Left turn only” sign marking the lane leading to the bridge. Most days, leaning against that sign is a homeless woman begging for change.

She’s usually dressed in shabby clothes and holds a sign with one of two messages: “Help feed me an my kids” or “Help my family afford a home.” She never approaches cars unless someone waves her over, and she tends to stare straight ahead off into the distance unblinking like a statue.

One day when I needed to go into the shopping plaza right near that intersection, I noticed a bicycle leaning against the chain link fence. It had plastic bags filled with stuff held to the frame with bungie cords; on the ground was a tarp and a filthy backpack. As I left the shopping plaza after getting gas the woman sat on the tarp drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. Assuming that her signs spoke the truth, I assume those bags were most likely everything of value left her in this world.

I have never given her money, mainly because I rarely carry cash. Sure my car, like most, has that meager assortment of loose change but all told it is less than a dollar and that just seems demeaning. Also, I rarely get stuck at that light. Just timing I guess. That being said for the last week or two I’ve gotten stuck at that light every time I’m trying to get off island. Most of the time I am far enough back in the line that when the light changes I breeze right past. Twice however I did not.

Both times I avoided eye contact. So did she, her face pointed up and out staring away. Each time I felt voyeuristically uncomfortable, letting my eye twitch and turn frantically towards the periphery thinking, “Please don’t approach, please.” She never did. Each time I felt guilty, uncomfortable. For a few days after that, I took a longer route using the rotary behind the stop light instead. She was still there though like some moral or spiritual road marker demanding quiet notice.

Why did I do that? Why did I take a different path? What was I avoiding?

We all become estranged in some way and at some point — estranged from society, family, co-workers and friends. Some estrangements are self-imposed exile but more often than not they are afflictions inflicted upon us by the callousness of others. True, I imagine those who ostracize rationalize their actions — contact is uncomfortable, emotionally taxing and difficult. All of that is a cop out.

People practice estrangement because contact is difficult. Contact is messy. Avoidance is easier. I know this from personal experience. We’ve been living in a limbo of sorts of for over a year — estranged from an entire part of our lives that has been amputated by indelicate and clumsy surgeons. As a result we remain disfigured, mutilated. Worse others who lack knowledge of the situation perceive us as broken and run the other way. Avoiding us in much the same ways I avoided the homeless woman.

Avoidance is always the easier choice but it’s a dangerous one — it dehumanizes and generates pain.

Engagement is the opposite of estrangement, and that means finding ground and giving ground.

Engagement requires presence and sometimes it means rolling down the window and looking another human being in the eye and acknowledging their humanity rather than looking the other way.rak3

Updated: October 20, 2015 — 5:13 am


  1. Beautiful, compassionate post. Thank you.


      You’re welcome Kitt. And thank you for the kind words and for giving it a read.

  2. Kindness. Seeing. Knowing. These are things we all crave. No matter our circumstance. We can all be looking for the opportunity to love. 🙂


      Very true, Brianna, very true. Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting.

  3. I do that too…more often than I’d like to admit. Sometimes I wish I had extra sandwiches in my car for just such an occasion.


      I have thought the same thing! Maybe it’s time to pack extra lunches. Thanks Liv.

  4. Such a thought provoking post! I hope that one day your family is given the chance to heal itself and that others will show more compassion for what you are going through.


      I hope so too Rena. Thanks for commenting.

  5. So beautifully written. It’s so easy to turn away – I think sometimes people do it because we worry that the other persons problems are somehow contagious. But it’s really the acts of kindness that are contagious, aren’t they? A nice reflection.


      I agree Katy. Thanks for giving us a read.

  6. Awesome post. This is so true. I e done the same thing as well and it leaves me feeling horrible. I try and look everytime. Even when it hurts.


      Thanks Kim. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  7. You speak so much truth here. I’ve often avoided the glance of the homeless gentleman we pass nearly every day. And I’ve noticed the same thing about his gaze as well – it’s somewhere else, not wanting to engage for whatever reason. Embarrassment? Fear of judgment? Maybe that’s true for each of us. It’s hard to stare reality in the face.
    And then there’s the more personal estrangement – even if for the best, it still hurts on both sides. Contact IS uncomfortable, especially when admission of wrong and confession of feelings get thrown in the mix.
    I wish I could get words on page as skilfully as you do…


      Thanks Lisa. What I posses in terms of artful language I lack when it comes to “practicing” with my emotions in the real world. A cruel irony I suppose to be capable of insight and nuance while bumbling around the world like a clod.


          Glad it resonated with you. Thanks Lisa.

  8. I totally agree, it`s partially a result of these modern times. But people were taking care of themselves only for a longer time than we can remember. Rules saying that more powerful will survive are still there and sometimes we, people are even worse than animals, we neglect our own family. But that`s yet another sickness of our civilisation I guess.


      Thanks Sidney. I agree that often we give into our animal nature with little regard for those around us. Fortunately we can become more mindful of that fact and change our behaviors. Thankfully I think we spend more time acting human that acting like animals, but I suppose that point is debatable.

  9. I love this so much. And adore the line “finding ground and giving ground”. I don’t know why we avoid those homeless or less than fortunate than ourselves. Possibly because we are afraid we will then be held accountable, or perhaps that we will feel guilty for what we have and what they don’t have. We don’t want to be reminded that all is not right in our own neighbourhoods. Such a good reminder to act with compassion and give whatever and whenever we can. Thank you for a great thought provoking post.


      Thanks Sarah. I think the avoidance might stem from the two sources you mention: 1) guilt that we have and they have not, and (2) because we all participate in a system that discards the “undesirables”.

  10. A wonderful post…oozing compassion. I find it incredibly hard these days to pass a homeless person without giving them something, doubling back to buy them food if there is a food shop near by, handing them change if not… it never feels enough though. I also find that if I am unable to give them either (food or change) I do the avoid eye contact thing… because I feel guilty, I don’t want to acknowledge them and then seem to ignore their situation by walking on by… Perhaps that’s something I can (should) change… perhaps they’d be as grateful for the acknowledgement, a smile, a ‘normal’ “hello”, as they would coins and/or chow.


      Thanks Kimmie. For certain to look upon someone is one thing, to see them is entirely something else…

  11. I can’t see, so it makes it easier to not know about someone in need. I come across homelessness when I walk the streets of Toronto. I walk by with my white cane and I think people don’t expect me to help because a lot of people don’t know how to interact with me either.
    I want to help everyone, and then I end up feeling bad when I fail to help anyone.


      Thanks Kerry. You comment is so appreciated because you bring a whole new dimension to the discussion. So glad to see your comments on any of our post. At least you want to help others, not many can say the same thing.

  12. This is a beautifully written post. On the issue of homelessness and asking for money, I now generally make eye contact and say hello even if I don’t give money. I don’t know if that helps, but I like to think it does.

    On the issue of estrangement, I recently went for dinner with a friend from high school that I hadn’t seen since then (so almost 20 years). We had reconnected on Facebook. I didn’t think we had much in common anymore, but dinner seemed a small commitment. On the way home from dinner she began listing all the people she’d reached out to on Facebook who hadn’t “friended” her back. The fact that this hurt her was obvious. I enjoyed dinner. I know she did too – and the experience made me reflect on how small actions, and inactions impact others and the “little things” I can do that might not seem so little to others.


      Thanks Louise. And, I am sure that recognizing someone, anyone, helps. It is good you reconnected with your old friend and that you “friended” her in real life and that it enriched both of you.

  13. This was so powerful and beautiful. It is devastating to be denied,to be pushed out of the circle at the most basic level of our common humanity. I know there are toxic relationships/situations where we must cut off contact (an abuser, drug addict, etc.), but in general it would be nice if we used our hands to pull people back in and not push them out.

    1. Beautifully put Lee, beautifully put. Thank you.

  14. This is so true. There are so many times/ways in society that we turn away rather than deal with those who are hard to look in the eye, whether strangers or members of ones own family.

    1. Unfortunately you are right about this Molly. Thank you for adding to this thread.

  15. At a studio where I used to take yoga, there was a mentally ill homeless woman who would hang out in the parking lot and ask for money. In her life before mental illness, she was an English teacher and so would quote Shakespeare for money. I remember one night, some new students called the police and said the woman was harassing them—-she did no such thing, she would approach and ask for money, if you told her that you didn’t have any, she would go away. There was a big to-do in the parking lot as the police took her in. I couldn’t understand how anyone who was taking yoga could even do that. In our class that night, the yoga teacher gave a much-needed dharma talk on compassion for the homeless.

    1. I often wonder the same thing myself. Some of the least tolerant people on the ones constantly preaching tolerance. Some of the least charitable sit devotedly in pews on Sunday and listen to stories of their Christ washing the feet of homeless and prostitute. I’m glad the yogi seized the moment to speak of the dharma — as a cynic it wouldn’t surprise me if those that complained avoided the class thereafter. If the practice is not uncomfortable at times we’re probably doing it wrong. Great comment Jennifer, thank you.

  16. Beautiful and insightful, as always. I think most of us are prone to this to a degree, as you say. My three year old is very taken at the moment with giving money to homeless people, started by my mother encouraging her, and I give her money to give too when I have some, and she asks if we can every time we see a homeless person. She doesn’t fully understand their situation, of course, but she has understood that homeless people are not lucky enough to have everything we do and need some help and she wants to help. Of course, being so young, she does not feel any awkwardness, and she does not see any reason to feel awkward or to avoid them. She bounds over, gives money and talks about something random, as she would with anyone. And, of course, again entirely as you would expect, she gets the same back as she gives – smiles, laughter and conversation. She doesn’t yet know how often people treat other groups of people as different to them and, by not knowing that, she demonstrates that those differences are much less significant than people convince themselves they are. Unfortunately, as much as may like to, I cannot currently afford to assist my toddler in providing funds to every single homeless person she sees every time, but I can keep encouraging her to not be afraid or awkward or avoid the homeless, and make sure that she understands that they are simply less fortunate, not less human, than other people. I hope that she keeps that attitude, and continues to want to help when she can.

    1. I contemplated a lengthy reply to your comment as a means of showing adequate respect for the time and energy you put into crafting it. Alas, I cannot since I want only to say the following: As it should be; as it should be. Thank you SM.

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