Ostracism and the Zombies Amongst Us

I was having coffee with a friend and we started talking about an experience we both have had at one point or another – ostracism.

Ostracism as it was originally intended was actually a good thing. According to Wikipedia:

was a procedure under the Athenian democracy in which any citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. While some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the citizen, ostracism was often used preemptively. It was used as a way of neutralizing someone thought to be a threat to the state or potential tyrant.

That actually sounds kind of useful and I can think of all kinds of politicians and prospective politicians that should be ostracized. Unfortunately it is not a good thing within the context of community and human relations where it becomes shunning or excommunication.

Within communities it does not typically happen in any organized and conscious sense. Usually it is an instinct that people enact in response to a person or persons that have, in their eyes, done something wrong, something that makes them uncomfortable in that person’s presence.

Effectively we put these people to death.

You know what I mean, you have done this, I have done this. We come to an unconscious conclusion that in order to effectively move forward in a community certain people must die to us.

Practically speaking this can look like the following:

  • we no longer acknowledge their presence
  • we stop thinking about them
  • we talk about them in the past tense (if we talk about them at all)
  • we mourn their loss
  • we move forward as if they never existed

We kill them. We kill them in our hearts and in our minds because this is far easier than having to navigate the complex and muddy moral waters of a friend who we feel has betrayed us somehow. It is far easier than maintaining the connection in the face of a community that has put the person to death. We know that we too, if we are not careful, could also be executed.

Usually when we kill people in this way they have the courtesy to oblige us by accepting their death with silence, creeping off to the isolated places the dead go and leaving us alone in ignorant bliss. Sometimes they leave the community because of the awkwardness of it all.

Although I speak of death in a figurative way sometimes this kind of separation leads to actual death for people – being shunned or separated from community can lead to depression and eventually illness and even suicide so that our metaphorical judgement becomes tragically real.

On occasion however the dead do not remain dead. Once and a while the ones we put to death stubbornly continue to walk amongst us and make their presence known. We call such creatures zombies or the undead and they frighten us.

We do not like being in the presence of one we thought dead. Especially the ones we executed. They freak us out and we do not know how to act around them.

If we come into contact with them perhaps we will become unclean – infected with the thing that killed them.

Of course this is all nonsense. The reality is we have no authority over the lives of others and when we kill people in this way we are concocting a fairy tale designed to ease our minds rather than have to deal with the dirty mess of maintaining real community.

Community, in its true form, is messy. Each of us has secretly or not-so-secretly done things that would cause others in the community to ostracize us should they come to learn of them. With this in mind there can be no such thing as community when we are constantly putting each other to death this way…only the disconnected walking dead.

The good news of course is that there is an alternative to putting the ones that discomfort us to death…there is an alternative to ostracism – genuine relationship; the kind of relational community that works hard at keeping one-another alive through the uncomfortable reality of our mutual humanity. Not ignoring the pain others can cause us but dealing with it head on with the intent of preserving one-another.

The next time a friend does something that makes you want to ostracize them consider grace and compassion instead of judgement and perhaps you will find life, where once death wanted to enter.


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