The combination between geographic proximity and relational distance is an intolerable burden for people and peoples alike. One of the many songs from singer-songwriter Mat Kearney is the longing tune “Ships In The Night,” which has the framing story of a relationship that is full of drama and difficulty as two people who obviously love and care about each other pass each other like ships in the night, just never seeming to come to terms with each other. The framing of the story, with a mix of a sung chorus full of longing and sharp work in the rap verses, is one that many people can readily understand and relate to. Many of us live our lives close to and yet distant from other people , and that is an intolerable state of affairs that leaves many people torn between the desire to be close despite the difficulties of our getting along with others and the desire to rupture relationships and communication that has become uncomfortable and unpleasant for us. As someone whose characteristic approach to intimacy alternates between schizoid aloofness, awkward ambivalence, and uncomfortably intense affection, this tension is one I understand all too painfully well.
It has long been my unfortunate fate to know what it is like to be alone in a crowd. I have sat alone in restaurants and malls reading and writing quietly while surrounded by happy couples and families and groups. I have known what it feels like to be next to people, to know them for many years, and to have them no more aware of the layers of my existence than perfect strangers, who may have the advantage of at least paying attention to body language enough to recognize what was being felt and thought but not said. I have known, all my life, what it is like to be odd and eccentric even in odd and eccentric company, to be exploited for what I had to give, to be barely tolerated because I was found useful, and to know the sting of being an outcast beyond the pale of even mere politeness and courtesy. I have known the gulf of silence and hurts and bitterness that can lie between two adjacent souls from painful observation as well as even more painful personal experience, and I write this knowing that many of those who may read this will understand it from their own observation and experience as well.
In the awkward period before the beginning of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address commented to the discontented rebels of the Deep South that the Union and Confederacy could not separate from each other as do estranged former spouses unwilling to even be in the same room as each other if it can possibly be avoided, but had to be next to each other. Many nations have understood that problem of being next door to those with whom they seemed locked in eternal conflict, whether we are talking about Israelis and Palestinians, Chinese and Vietnamese, Frenchmen and Germans, and so on, ad nauseum. Even where there is peace in such situations, there is the continual reminder of previous conflicts and the feeling that more conflict is possible at the drop of the hat, with very little necessary to spark the latent fuse and the unresolved disagreement. Abraham Lincoln was right not to accept such a permanent state of affairs by crushing the rebellion decisively enough that the example has yet to be repeated in our republic.
What is it that makes this situation so intolerable? We can see in our own lives and in the anecdotal evidence of history that it is intolerable, but what makes the situation so impossible to endure? The divide between relational distance and physical proximity is the worst sort of divide. When faced with those whose presence brings us continual torment and unhappiness, those who have wronged us and are a continual threat against our well-being, it is easy on both sides to feel as if the other people we are dealing with are simply not fully human, and therefore are not worthy of the respect and honor and graciousness that we would give to others. Not surprisingly, this makes every interaction fraught with danger that the lack of mutual respect and concern will rise into open conflict and hostility, where people are close enough to harm but not close enough to love. That is the dynamic we see in broken families as well as in the continual conflict between unhappy neighbors. In some cases, people can flee from those whose presence brings them such suffering, but in the case of nations it is not generally possible for an entire large group of people to flee in our contemporary world from those whose presence brings them torment and suffering, and the results–as seen in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, are deeply tragic.
What can we do so that we are not a torment to others? How is it that we can live so that, as much as possible, we may be at peace with those around us? To be sure, no matter how decently we think or act towards others, people may see in our behavior a potential threat. Even so, most people would rather live at peace with others if they have a good reason for it, and a long enough example of peace and goodwill, assuming that there is an absence of hostility, can overcome even a particularly painful history. Can we be consistent enough in our goodwill, in our friendliness, and in our peacefulness that we can allow people to let down their defenses enough so that we do not have to continue the intolerable existence of being close to those we are not close to at all? I suppose that is a question we each have to answer for ourselves, and have to reflect upon in our own ways. Far too commonly we are all ships in the night passing each other by, far away even when we are close.
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