Picture eight or so sixth-grade boys, playing football on a narrow strip of grass between two houses. A laundry pole marks one end zone and the sidewalk marks the other. The football has gone into the busy street repeatedly, worrying drivers and kids alike.
At half-time, some of the kids run across the street to the neighborhood store, while others continue to toss the football around. When the boys return from the store, one boldly displays candy that he stole, and he dares the others to do the same.
Several of the boys take the dare and cross the street. While they are gone, the first boy taunts those who remain. He accuses them of being scared, then clucks like a chicken. The others return moments later with their plunder. “It was easy!” they say, and they goad the remaining boys to “do it.” Two more cross the street.
The football game is now forgotten. When the last of the shoplifters returns, they go off together, as thick as thieves. One of the boys who didn’t steal candy picks up the football and walks alone into the house. I was that boy.
I wanted to belong to that group of boys so badly that I thought about stealing from my lifelong neighbors, the store owners Vince and Helen Lindway. I may have done it too, had it not been for the thought that I might get caught and brought before my dad—a fate too terrible to imagine.
The quality of life most commonly identified with satisfaction and well-being is the sense of belonging. A God-given way to experience this is through the family, but families are often fractured and even those that are intact are frequently not close. Psalm 142:4 states what millions of people feel: “Look to my right and see; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.”
People may be sorted into one of four possible categories in regard to their relationships. They may be rejected: known but not accepted. They may be ignored and rejected: neither known nor accepted. They may fit in – they are accepted but not known. They may belong – both known and accepted. Fitting in is not enough to satisfy anyone. People need to be accepted and known.
But this raises the question of why people feel alone in the first place. The answers, for there are more than one and they are layered, are psychological, sociological, and theological. The crack in humanity’s relationship with God is foundational, but it has expanded into all our relationships.
Early in the Bible, we read the story of humanity’s break with God; the rest of the Bible relates what God is doing to repair the breach. Alienation from our creator and life-giver has left humanity vulnerable, confused, and anxious. Instead of satisfaction and well-being, humans routinely experience discontentment and fear.
The break with God immediately spread to other relationships. We see the crack radiate out as Adam blames his epic failure on his wife. We know it has spread even further when we hear what the future holds: the woman’s desire will be for her husband, but he will “rule” over her.
The crack continued to grow, first splitting brothers – Cain and Abel – and then alienating people from each other. Societal violence increased until “every inclination of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Though the rupture began in humanity’s relationship with God, it went on to divide people from each other.
But it did not stop there, for the crack even divides individuals from themselves, leading to a condition St. James described as “double-souled.” People are alienated from themselves, their identities ruptured. They undergo a slow internal disintegration, something St. Paul describes as the “corruption” of the self.
We ought to gratefully acknowledge mental health professionals’ efforts to heal our internal ruptures. We should cheer community activists’ work to end social alienation. But unless the initial rift is mended between people and God, these efforts will be like patching drywall in a house that is settling. The cracks are certain to reappear and grow even bigger. The original rupture must be repaired.