When you can no longer interact with people according to socially acceptable norms you begin to cultivate a unique perspective on society. It can be so easy to feel like an island, even when you’re surrounded by continent. You’re in the throng, people are all around you happy and talking and laughing, but you’re still completely by yourself. You can be amidst hundreds of others and still be utterly alone.
I’ve been through this recently on both sides of the aisle. On the one hand, I went for months when I had a trashed (or potentially trashed) immune system, so I was forced to wear a surgical mask and this little personal air purifier that had a flashing LED on it. (Which I’m still thankful for, by the way – thanks, Aunt Julie!) The air purifier drew looks and comments, but it was much better than the alternative: the surgical mask. Maybe in other cultures surgical masks are perfectly normal and acceptable social behavior. But in America, people look at you – and treat you – like you are currently carrying Bird Flu. This doesn’t improve once they actually talk to you and learn that you have cancer. As I’ve mentioned before, Americans do not know how to talk to sick people. So instead they hem and haw and slink away as quickly as they gracefully can.
On the other hand, I was recently at a concert with my brother (to see the grand maestros of “Showbread” – may raw rock kill you forever and ever, amen.) As we were sitting there waiting for the show to start, a girl came up behind us and asked if the seat next to me was saved for anyone. I said it was reserved for her, she said, “Cool,” and sat down next to me. As the minutes stretched on I realized that just about everyone else was talking with friends and having a good time, but this girl was all alone. She didn’t look at all like the type of person who fit in this crowd (I barely did), and I started wondering what her story was and what had brought her to this show. I started trying to come up with a way to open up a conversation with her, but I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t make me look like I was a creeper, making moves, or just weird. (I’m an introvert, all right? I realize there were all sorts of perfectly acceptable things I could have said, but for some reason at that moment nothing was coming.) Finally the concert got going and I got off the hook. But then later on the lead singer said that the only reason the band still existed after all these years was because of Jesus. Just about everyone in the crowd went crazy. Except for this girl.
Am I making too much of this? Maybe. Probably, even. But as we left that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had missed out on an opportunity to touch her life. And I wondered if she had remained an island because no one had invited her to join the mainland.
Actor Robin Williams died recently of an apparent suicide. Many have said he was in the midst of a deep depression. It would seem even fame, money, and fans don’t cure us of our loneliness. In fact, in Mr. Williams’ case, I wonder if it made it worse; if being surrounded by so many who wanted a piece of him, criticized him and idolized him made him more alone than ever.
Which of these are you? Are you on the island looking in? Or are you on the continent glancing out? I’m going to guess it’s been a bit of both.
It can be so easy to become an army of one. Don’t let it happen. Don’t let isolation envelope your life. You weren’t meant to journey through this world alone: you were meant to influence and be influenced by others. Do others shun us or not understand us or talk behind our backs? Sure. But we are the ones who choose to let that burn us. We are the ones who decide to rise above the dirt or be buried by it. We can either overcome or be overcome: the choice is ours. It’s so easy to make our church a TV preacher or a streaming service online, and skip the human connection altogether. It’s so convenient to make our social lives Facebook rather than face-to-face. I’m not saying any of these things are wrong in and of themselves, but when they become our Wilson(1) we have a serious issue.
And then there’s the flip-side of the coin. A stranger walks into your social sphere and you suddenly find yourself at a crossroad. It’s so much more comfortable to carry on as you were. It’s far less trying to pretend you don’t see her and let her pass. And chances are there will be no skin off your back for doing just that. But what if you are the one and only glimmer of light she will see? What if your comfort is consigning her to darkness? It’s easy to brush off that thought as silly or severe. But how do you know? What if that social misfit is in a place as dark as Mr. Williams, and a word from you could save his life? What if the wall flower just desperately needs to know she matters and that she’s beautiful? What if the outcast hungers deep in his soul to be told that he finally belongs? How can we ever be salt and light if we never let anyone taste or see?
Ironically, it is incredibly easy in this connected age to find yourself that solitary island. But we were never supposed to be. You were meant for so much more. Have you been hurt before? Burned? Cast off? Welcome to the human race. But, to paraphrase/quote Rob Bell, the question is where will we go from there? Will we be bitter or better? Closed or open? More ignorant or more aware?(2) We choose if we stay out in the cold, and we can choose if others do as well.
May we choose warmth.
- Robert Zemeckis, “Castaway” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2000).
Rob Bell, “Drops Like Stars” (Zondervan, 2009).
Image (c) Can Stock Photo