The first four weeks of lockdown were revealing. Introverts were as happy as Larry having been given permission to withdraw, with no pressure to mix socially, and commended for their diligence in self-isolating.
Extroverts suffered withdrawal symptoms like drug addicts going cold turkey, counting down the hours before they could get out to exercise and wave across the road to socially distanced friends. The number of WhatsApp groups grew exponentially and to zoom took on an entirely new meaning, nothing to do with speeding.
After two months the novelty has worn off, even extreme introverts are feeling the strain. Who knows how many have sneaked a visit to parents, hugged a grandchild or popped round to an isolated best friend? Most of us have been at one and the same time super-connected via technology, social media and a common threat, a real and present danger; and disconnected by enforced isolation and social distancing. We have been reminded, and in Technicolor, of the importance of human connections. To belong means to be connected by relationships, and belonging is important. Church is so much more than a sermon or message; it is being members one of another. Worship brings us into God’s presence but also connects us powerfully in that very act.
Yet even pre-lockdown social distancing had become, albeit more subtly, part of our world. Gated homes and developments are a more obvious illustration of this, but the increasing fragmentation of society has been evident for some time. The profusion of echo chambers in social media which entrench views and the homogeneous nature of social groupings, while perfectly understandable, have had damaging consequences for society and inevitably diminish our ability to live together peacefully and productively. Increasing polarisation has been one of the results.
Perhaps counterintuitively, socially mixed communities are more stable, safer and healthier by many metrics. Likewise there is evidence that children benefit in significant ways from being in a socially mixed school. When the pandemic is over, before we slide back into our comfortable homogeneous groups we should actively engage in some social exploration. We could visit groups that we were socially distanced from, meet people we would not normally spend time with, read books, newspapers, blogs we would not be instinctively drawn to and attend events that would not normally find their way into our diaries. One summer, while on holiday, I took the family greyhound racing. We didn’t win, perhaps because we didn’t place any bets, but it’s one of those family memories we still talk about.
Churches could reach out to other groups which are theologically, ecclesiologically and culturally different. Just as the world needs introverts and extroverts our churches are enriched by difference. We will ultimately have more to say to the surrounding world and will speak with greater credibility. Life may be less comfortable if lived in the company of people who are different, but God has not called us to comfort, he calls us to maturity and as iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another. Being connected to people who are different stretches and challenges us in our thinking. It teaches us to be quick to listen and slower to speak. And, hopefully, we can learn how to live peacefully with difference.
So, as we emerge from lockdown, to the delight of extroverts and the trepidation of introverts, let’s embrace difference and welcome contrasting, thought provoking perspectives, knowing that, as it says in Proverbs, ‘there is safety in a multitude of counsellors’.
John Kyle, recently retired from General Practice in East Belfast, is a member of Christian Fellowship Church and a Councillor on Belfast City Council representing the Progressive Unionist Party. He is a member of the Board of Contemporary Christianity.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.