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.