There are words you hear once, but they stay ringing in your heart for life. Sitting on a stool in the dark and poor kitchen, the old lady, with tears in her eyes, had this to say: “We’re here like two owls”. The children had emigrated. In the summer the house overflowed with bustle and joyful life, but the rest of the year, she and her husband stayed there, grumbling like owls.
This was one of the most touching phrases I ever heard from my dear mother. Another, more than a sentence, was a series of terrible exclamations, on the day God called my father to Himself. “What passion!” – sighed my mother, feeling in her own flesh the suffering of Christ’s Passion. She reminded me of Mary, the “sorrowful Mother”, when she drank the bitter “chalice” on Calvary!
Atrocious loneliness is the bread of many elderly and sick people today, of refugees and kidnapped people, of those who count for nothing and hope for nothing. Less people die of tuberculosis, but incomparably more from isolation and lack of love.
“The animals live, the human being exists,” said Victor Hugo. I repeat: human beings, as animals, live; as free beings, which they also are, they exist.
We only really exist when we are under the gaze of others. A baby tries to catch his mother’s gaze, not only so that she will run to give him the breast or to cuddle him, but also because that gaze brings him an indispensable complement: it confirms his existence. To be a person is to count on someone who pronounces your name with love and, in turn, expects you to pronounce his name with love.
When we lack a social relationship – human warmth, recognition – it is as if we lack oxygen. We begin to wither away, unhappy like stray dogs or like owls and owls in their dark hole. Without communion with others, life is extinguished. “I only exist insofar as I exist for someone”. I am loved, therefore I exist.
William James wrote that the most diabolical punishment that could be inflicted on a person – if it were physically possible – was to abandon him in society and make him go completely unnoticed. Such is the situation of the outcast, of the excluded, of the one who has no social recognition.
The most brutal punishment is total isolation. I think Hell is just that: the realm of perpetual and complete oblivion. In Heaven,” said Teresa of Avila, “there will be no indifferent glances”; in Hell, on the contrary, absolute indifference will reign. We do not need the hellish urbanization of eternity. The life of many people “is a real hell”.
Perhaps the greatest torture of the poor is not their misery, but the fact that no one gives them any consideration or importance. “The poor man comes and goes without being noticed, and in the midst of the crowd finds himself in the same darkness as in his hut,” wrote Adam Smith.
Old age, in turn, is a diminution not only of strength but also of connection with society. We begin to die of loneliness. “To die is to be unseen” – a popular saying goes. Existence can end before life comes to an end.
That is why, when we speak of social exclusion, we should ask first of all: excluded from what? From goods that we could call material, such as bread, shelter, clothing, medical assistance, physical and social security? To exclude from these goods many people, or a few, or a single person, is a flagrant injustice.
But there is another class of social goods – let us call them immaterial, if we like – which are no less valuable. Companionship, friendship, culture, hope, affection, we enjoy these goods because we live in society. To deny them to a person is as unjust as depriving him of bread or medicine.
No political organisation, however just it may be, can provide its citizens with these goods. Nor is it the role of the State. It is the responsibility of each person, the family, civil society, non-governmental organisations and religious institutions. These entities must “force” the political powers to order things in such a way that no one is excluded from material goods, but first they must fill the needy with hope and meaning, give them consolation and tenderness, encourage their self-esteem and joy, and also offer them, if they are believers, divine grace.
Only intelligent solidarity can put an end to unjust exclusion and make participants in material and immaterial goods their rightful owners: all people. Starting with the most vulnerable and alone. Those who are thrown into a hole like moles or into the branches of a cypress tree like owls.
Abílio Pina Ribeiro, cmf
(PHOTO: Dominik Van Opdenbosch)