Today I passed you on the road. Our eyes didn’t meet through the tint, but I caught the outline of your face as you whisked by. What thoughts were you thinking in your shiny new car? Are you a real person like me, blood and bone, or only an actor in a Truman-type world—a prop for the life I think I’m living? Did you go home to your cozy suburban two-story where laundry and dirty dishes await? Just like me? I wonder if you care about me. This “other” that shares your space, approximates your life, almost touching but not.
My house is on a street with about twenty-five others. Every one has a sycamore out front and a dog in the back. My house is in a neighborhood with about two hundred others, in a city of many more, street upon street, warp and woof. We are many but alone. We are community but not communal, living in isolated bubbles, protected from anything real and vital. We share common roads but no common history.
We shop at the same markets and buy the same goods. Our flesh glides by each other granting slight neighborly smiles, but distance is maintained by inches. A force keeps us apart, repelled like same ends of a magnet. How can we be so many, so close, yet so alone?
Once in awhile real contact is made—a brief moment of connection, a fire flicker. But more often than not the circle closes in, the fire extinguishes, and we go our own ways. But what is the value of our own ways if we live our days in Solomon moments, meaningless steps on a treadmill, caring less and less about those around us and more and more about our protected space.
A neighbor almost died last year. I didn’t know. She had alienated us over the years with unkind words and tall fences. When I heard, we had a talk. I took her some homemade bread. Another neighbor tried to commit suicide. I didn’t know. I heard through the rumor mill months after the fact. She still doesn’t know that I know.
We use city water that’s pumped into our homes—a shared resource. But we seem to suck up our own private wells of comfort in times of suffering. I wonder if it’s enough?
In my house, we have a thriving ant community. They mysteriously appear from nowhere to plague me with their sheer numbers. I spray and kill, yet their presence never seems diminished. What’s strange about these ants is that they carry off their dead. What do they do with fragments of bodies?
Sometimes I think they must be cannibals, and in taking home fallen brothers slathered in lemon fresh cleaner, they guarantee a feast for the folks who have kept the home fires burning. Other times, I wonder if with their strong sense of colony and community they take their dead home to honor brave fallen foragers complete with little markers, tears, and eulogies. Do they feel the loss of one as the loss of all?
In faraway places, there are tribal communities whose lives are interconnected because of their dependence on one another for life itself. Their survival depends on community. They live and move together and share a common story passed down to wee ones. I wonder if our wealth and technological advances are such an improvement to their quality of life. We might have fuller bellies but emptier hearts.
It’s not that they are the noble savages and we should wear loincloths and adopt all their ways. They have other deep dark needs, but their lifestyle imposed upon them by geography and physical poverty has put them in a position of needing one another. Even with our bank accounts and cars and houses, we need one another, too. Just as badly. But in our affluence, we have lost that critical sense of need. There are just too many fences.
Today I passed you in the aisle. Our eyes didn’t meet. You glanced beyond and through me, intent on something else. Are you a real Christian like me, or merely a prop in this body-life I think I’m experiencing? I wonder if you care about me—this “other” that shares your pew, shares your worship, shares a ritualistic hug, almost touching but not. Are you afraid of knowing who I really am? Or are you afraid of being known?
We are called brothers and sisters, family. But it feels like there’s been a divorce. We walk as aliens—not only as aliens in this world, but also as aliens in Christ’s church. We are community without communion. We worship in isolated bubbles, protected from real and vital fellowship. We share a common history but no common roads. We are many but we walk alone. As it is in the neighborhood, so it is in the church. We are alone in a crowd.
People need people. There is a sickness in isolation that infects the mind, the body, and the spirit. There is a weakness, a degeneration, in self-centered individualism. If we have no vital connection to the church, how can we grow in strength of faith and character? How can we embrace the joy that comes with a sense of belonging? If we have no genuine connection to our community how can we love our neighbor as we love ourselves? How can we earn the right to offer them life in Christ except in desperate kamikaze runs that put “spiritual” notches on our belts?
If we continue, out of fear, to build more fences instead of tearing down old ones, if we do not risk rejection by expanding the borders of our lives, we will continue to walk in longing and loss. Alone.