About three times yearly, I find a monastery or national park to visit alone for a few days and, as they say, recharge my batteries. After nearly ten years of marriage my wife and I have learned our household is more harmonious when I am afforded this time in solitude.
These retreats are a change of pace that I cherish, and I appreciate my wife for picking up the slack around the house to make it possible. Over the years, I have come to realize this disposition is not rooted in any sort of antisocial behavior but is actually a complementary feature of my increasingly community-focused life.
So let it be said Chris Morgan’s American Conservative manifesto, “In Defense of Bowling Alone,” written as a rebellious contradiction to Robert Putnam’s nearly prophetic “Bowling Alone,” has most certainly reverberated. I am indeed sympathetic to his poetic waxing and waning over the underappreciated virtue of solitude.
I do believe in our culture, with nonstop consumable content meant to fill every last vestige of our waking life, boredom and the need to spend some time in reflection are devastatingly underappreciated. Just as well, I could not help but let out a silent “Amen” throughout the essay, as Morgan laments the proliferation of noise makers throughout his safe havens of diners and bowling alleys. As I read the essay, I could see some 20 adult years of my own reflections written more eloquently.
From Living Together to Living Alone
Simultaneously, however, it seems to miss the overarching point of Putnam’s book. We are community-oriented people, and somewhere between our culture’s hyper-individualistic rhetoric and technology boom, our communal bonds have been compromised. “Bowling Alone’s” data is clear and should be read ominously.
The culture has shifted so that social interactions are less necessary to survive, and we must consciously work to receive the benefits of being a community member. In other words, as life becomes more convenient and the gods of wealth and progress make it possible to write a check or click a button where our grandparents would have put on their work boots or driven to the store, we are unlearning the skills of living in community and passing loneliness on to our children.
This is not mere hyperbole. As NPR reports, “Americans are a Lonely Lot and Young People Bear the Heavier Burden.” The health insurer Cigna began a nationwide survey to measure loneliness and found almost half of the respondents “reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.” Generationally the metrics swing backwards: younger feel more socially isolated than their parents and grandparents do or did.
One must look no further than the generationally linked precipitous drops in church attendance, the cornerstones of strong communities, to understand the pernicious problem of social fracturing. In the era of Facebook, it seems taken for granted nobody should feel lonely, but as the Cigna report shows, social media only seems to work as a stop gap for isolation if “you’re using it to reach out and connect to people to facilitate other kinds of [in-person] interactions.”
This is precisely where Morgan’s essay is conditionally true, with one major qualifier. Properly understood, bowling alone is good if it helps take a step back from one’s social responsibilities. Finding time to “clear your head” or “just be alone” is not only a nice accompaniment to the day-to-day grind, but it is often even a necessary path to good mental (and spiritual) health.
When Silence Punctuates Sound, It Creates Music
Nonetheless, it is in no conceivable way to be desired in the manner Putnam shows from deconstructing the statistics in his book. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once said, “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.” Put another way, the silence that relates to solitude creates a harmony when juxtaposed against the noise and busyness of life.
We should be making efforts to start bowling leagues, volunteer at our churches, and commit to other civic engagements. We should be teaching our children how to go out and serve the community so their social needs are met later on.
When my wife and I moved from small-town Texas to larger pastures, we struggled to assimilate to our new community. We did not think it was due to insufficient effort, as we found a church and became members at our local civic center, but initially there was little fruit from our efforts. Later on, I signed up to help teach catechism classes to the pre-teens in our parish, and my wife has found other ways to volunteer, like building sets for vacation Bible school.
The result has been integration into our church community. People now know our names and faces. Lately, we have begun working outside of our church as well, and the end result has been finding time for well-earned solitude to balance the activity.
Fundamentally, we are creatures who, as the research bears out, are so needy of social bonds that if they go unfulfilled we risk compromising not only our sanity but even our physical health. To say we are made in the image of God, whose Trinitarian essence is communal, is to say we are made for social cohesion.
Working out from there, the proper orientation works to strengthen the bonds of family, church, and more broadly our communities. “Bowling Alone” offers a concussive vision of how we moderns have largely abandoned this crucial dimension of life. Combining this with more recent data that suggests loneliness is increasingly a feature in the lives of younger Americans, the solution is to begin teaching our kids, and often teaching ourselves, how to be good neighbors. When this is achieved, then bowling alone is not only a welcome balance to the activity, but often an indisputable treat.