Skip to main content

Precarity breeds loneliness; loneliness imprisons us in despair. Pushed by the pandemic’s social and economic fallout, I descended into this insight with little choice. 

I decided to move back in with Mom in the middle of my first semester of seminary. It was the fall of 2020, an uncertain season. For safety, classes moved to a virtual mode with no interactions with colleagues and teachers outside Zoom and email. Mom was still running the daycare, but money was sparse. Our family lost our janitorial business. And at the same time, reports came out that Anti-Asian violence was on the rise while Filipino/a nurses were dying disproportionately from COVID-19. I worried about Filipino family and friends.  

My girlfriend, living in Michigan, called daily but distance alienated us. I watched porn and binged TV as forms of distraction between reading biblical stories about the God of Horeb, who carried a suffering people into freedom, and about Jesus, who cried out to that same God in a feeling of existential and material abandonment: “My God / My God / Why have you forsaken me?”  

During that season, I began reading Carlos Bulosan’s novel America is in the Heart, which tells the story of Filipino migration to the United States during the early 20th century. 

The protagonist, Allos, is a tenant farmer whose family suffers under the exploitation of the church and capitalists. At one point, they are forced to give the church a third of their crop yield. At another point, police officers confiscate their rice harvest as payment for loan debt (56). Allos eventually leaves his family and travels to the United States under the illusion that he will be able to escape this “cancer of exploitation.” (26,101). 

But the United States is not what Allos expects. Needing money, Allos works at a fish cannery in Alaska. After his contract ends, his employer, a fellow Filipino, charges him for “incurred” expenses like room and board, taking it from his paycheck and leaving him with thirteen dollars (106). Allos returns to Seattle but fails to find sustainable work, so he leaves again (106). He journeys across the U.S. and finds work as a migrant farmer. He travels to California, Idaho, and Montana in search of work that pays little and for employers who have no respect for the dignity of Filipino lives (150, 151). In the United States, Allos is left a wandering laborer — “a rootless man,” (109).

Racial othering is essential to this rootlessness. Filipinos are beaten in restaurants; they are shot by police officers; when Filipino workers strike for better wages, they are replaced by “imported Mexican labor,” (147, 131, 208). Different racial others fill the labor gap. This racial othering culminates when Allos is nearly lynched by white men while planning a labor protest. 

Allos doesn’t find freedom, he finds precarity: Filipinos in the United States are needed as expendable labor, but to the degree that they impose upon those white people who view themselves as the true America, they remain other. They belong to the extent that they are profits for those who are white. Anything more than that — equal wages, land ownership, civic rights, falling in love with white women — threatens the social order. 

Throughout America, Allos is haunted by loneliness. He describes his time on the ship sailing toward the United States as “without food, seasick, and lonely,” (99). During his travels, he strikes up a friendship with a woman because “he felt there was…a bond of fear and common loneliness,” (117). And loneliness is exacerbated by his fear that he’ll become like many of his companions who excessively gamble, struggle with alcohol addiction, and are sexually abusive. “I almost died within myself,” Allos tells us. “The days of hunger and loneliness came. Aching hunger and stifling loneliness.” He continues: “I was terribly afraid of myself, for it is the beast, the monster, the murder of love and kindness that would raise its dark head to defy all that was good and beautiful in life,” (138). 

My bedroom was my classroom, my prison, and my escape. I locked myself away to my work and my boredom until the evenings when the daycare children left. During dinners, Mom and I chatted about nothing of substance. I went for walks around the neighborhood. Most nights, the air was cold, and the streets were empty of people. Isolation grew. I would return home and go back to my bedroom. I read with fickle attention. I returned to porn and TV. An abysmal cycle. At the end of most days, nearly all my time was spent alone. I began to resent life itself. This was Bulosan’s stifling loneliness.

I never finished America during that season. The story hurt too much. America was a mirror forcing me to face the precarity created by our capitalist and racist world. I was spiritually empty, stranded upstairs while Mom took care of kids, exhausted at days of staring at a computer screen, and maimed by Bulosan’s piercing critique of the advent of loneliness within capitalism. 

In America, there are moments when even Allos’s loneliness dissipates. These moments are found away from labor exploitation, among experiences of awe in relationship to the nonhuman world. 

He experiences one of these moments with his father: “When the moon came out at dawn my father awakened me. We went outside and walked side by side to the clearing. There were crickets everywhere in the fields. I remember their tiny chirping and the fine moonlight that was steaming like a flood of silk as far as the eye could see. Walking with my father in the moonlight was as peaceful as sitting with him in the bottom of a clear mountain pool,”  (29). Allos feels the pull of the earth. Wonder and care flower into participation. Allos, despite the longevity of capitalism’s affliction, feels momentarily at home. Loneliness disappears. Allos feels a sense of belonging.

Capitalism cannot strip Allos of a sense of awe at the earth. Through awe, he sees that land and animals are not mere commodities; they are his neighbors. Land need not generate burden; it can generate belonging. So hope-filled are these moments of awe within creation,  Allos remarks: “I knew heaven could not be far from the earth,” (157).

I needed a break, so I started going on drives into the countryside. It was winter, which meant driving alongside fields where yellow and brown broke through melting layers of white. Where gusts of snow drift in the wind and remaining foliage turned to rot. 

One day, I drove to a forest preserve thirty minutes from my house.  After meandering through farmland, interspersed with creeks, unincorporated neighborhoods, woods, and electric lines, I passed through a small town at the edge of the Fox river, and emerged at the preservation. 

It is protected land that is part woods, right off the Fox river, with a long path that moves between trees, over creeks, up a hill, and opens toward a prairie. I take a trail that descends into the woods. A sign says Native Americans used to walk here. I’m not sure which ones. I cross a bridge, walk up a hill, pass through the prairie, and gander into a clearing. That is where they court my attention: a herd of white-tailed deer skips through a field ablaze by snow, their beige coats blending into the wintery incandescence. Seized by stillness, all I can do is watch. I focus on the deer dance amid the brush. With nearly all of Illinois’ natural prairies destroyed for development, this moment is a miracle, an encounter with life within an ecosystem at the edge of local extinction. Nature blooms in excess. A recess of life hidden in death. 

The deer pass quickly. They skip across the prairie and move out of sight. Camouflaging back into the woods, they are gone. 

More than a year has passed. I’m still healing from economic uncertainty and pandemic isolation, exposed as I was to life’s crushing fragility. I didn’t respond well to this exposure. I hid from my throbbing emptiness by turning to the immediate pleasures accessible by a computer. I still feel shame at the habits of my self-destruction, seeing in them the brutality that Allos himself feared. 

But loneliness was not the only feeling. I remember the drive and the prairie and the deer. What could this memory hold? Am I straining for something of a divine sign in a world of cruel silence? Or, like Bulosan, could wonder at the life of the earth itself be a subtle critique of the precarity that results from economic exploitation and its resulting loneliness? 

In This Sacred Life, Norman Wirzba points out that Jesus teaches us to learn from the nonhuman world (76). The birds of the air and lilies of the field are our models of trust in God; in them, we discover creation as a recipient of divine love, one of the means by which God reaches out to us. Jesus modeled this vision of divine encounter in his own life. He wandered into the wilderness where wild beasts were his comfort. The sea of Galilee and the garden of Gethsemane were his places of prayer. To receive Divine Love, Jesus turned his presence toward the nonhuman world. 

And so did I. Sojourning in hidden prairies among the deer was grace, a retreat into a creaturely life that carried me across a wilderness of isolation, even if momentarily. Only now do I realize that, as Ignacio Ellacuria says, Divine Transcendence is “in” rather than “away from” creation. In the life of the earth I was held by Life itself (142).  

In 2020, the world fell apart. And when Mom’s daycare nearly shut down, when we lost the janitorial business, when my girlfriend moved back to Michigan, when my brother moved to the other side of the country searching for work, when the Capitol was stormed by white nationalists, when Asian Americans were exploited and beaten and killed, and when I felt as though I lost everything — the prairie helped me carry on. Allos was right. Heaven is not far from the earth. It is within it. 

If Bulosan’s America is in the Heart offers any hope, it is in its illustration of a primal communion of land, human, nonhuman, and transcendent life webbed together and made perceptible by awe. To begin in this awe is to imagine life beyond precarity. 

It is to struggle against loneliness.

Colton Bernasol is a writer and editor from Plainfield, Illinois. He received a BA in Philosophy and Theology from Wheaton College, and an MA in Theology from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He currently lives in Chicagoland with his wife, Anna.

Leave a Reply