Isolation or Alienation?

We are excited to feature the Reverend Amy Beveridge as guest blogger. Pastor Amy serves Bethel Lutheran Church in Templeton, California.



As this time of scattering and distance draws onward and pulls us ever downward into our personal depths, I have noticed changes in our people that are unsettling. When the lockdowns began, we were physically isolated from one another. We minimized travel and avoided groups and ended in-person worship. Some groused about it; others went along without too much grumbling even if they were sad. Everyone though of course was pained and frustrated and some level of afraid. But now as we have adjusted to new routines, the exasperated sighs are largely gone. And in its place, I sense wariness. Where before I saw anxiety, now I see suspicion, not just of strangers but even of friends. I see that people are exhausted and bottomed out on unknowns. But I see too that in response, they are withdrawing further. This is especially true with some of our social-extroverted personalities. They seem to prefer avoidance of others to calculated risk, hunkering down until this all passes because a restricted relational world with rules for interaction seems worse to tolerate than loneliness.

In a conversation recently I shared this with Pastor Marj Funk-Pihl. “Mmmm, people are moving from isolation to alienation.”

Is that what is happening? Are we witnessing a sense of alienation descend upon our lives? Something beyond isolation?

I asked the Google gods. With a cursory glance at a mish-mosh of sites, I found startling definitions of emotional alienation that feel authentic to this moment. Alienation is what happens when we start to actively reject loved ones or the society of friends no matter the means of communication. It goes beyond being cautious. It stops being about staying healthy and evolves into a kind of primal fear. It becomes about shunning offers of friendship and love and human contact. It’s the experience of feelings like distance and estrangement, even from people we trust and even from our own emotions. Alienation is what happens when we feel the world is against us, that no one could understand what we are going through, that it’s not worth trying. It is a more evolved and insidious kind of isolation. Here is the link to healthline.

This is a time when our normal bonding rituals have been upended and we have been left vulnerable to alienation. That might be stating it mildly. Friendship has become vital. It was always vital, but without the comfort of crowds and walls of familiar spaces and reliable daily encounters, might some of us have underestimated its power? Perhaps it is too tired a thing to say that God is still at work in the small encounters. Or is it? We need the picnics with friends in the open air of parks, the porch visits, the words of love we share in notes, flowers delivered unexpectedly, hiking with the youth group, Sunday school on the lawn next to the sanctuary, warm sand on the feet, beautiful conversations over Zoom where people have let down their guard because they are in their comfort zone and not on the church campus in their Sundy best. Church is here even in the midst of massive disruption. Maybe not an experience of church that happens all at once at an appointed hour but sprinkled out across the days in tucked away moments few will notice. The voice of alienation will tell us this isn’t good enough or that it can never replace what we had or it will always be this way or worse, friends are to be feared. What can be enough for us right now? Alienation says there is only scarcity of connection.

I don’t know how good I am at preaching grace right now, at least the kind we are accustomed to hearing, the kind that involves happy endings. I can’t solve alienation in a sermon or a blog. But I can say it helps to give people words. It helps to give people a way to express what is happening to them. I know this from the text messages and the emails I’ve gotten and from the crying phone calls after Sunday worship posted on this issue. Maybe that’s a baby step back to friendship, to be able to say…”This is happening to me” and hear someone offer in return, even at a distance, “I can see you.” Or especially at a distance.

Link to the audio of Pastor Amy’s full sermon: https://www.blctempleton.org/worship-online-1

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