I don’t know these people anymore. I peruse my Facebook feed and smile at pictures of children I have never met and look closely at the faces of those I once knew. Sometimes I post things. And sometimes I get a “like.” This is what constitutes much of my community nowadays.
I don’t know my neighbors, and while I see people at work each day from my cubicle, I can’t say I am “friends” with most of them. We talk about our weekends and sometimes about the things that delight or trouble us, but I can’t say we are connected to one another in the deep way true friends are.
In spite of the fact that I work in buildings filled with people and live in a teeming city, I am often lonely. And many millions of people are just like me, lonely in the midst of a crowd and lacking a true community.
Neglecting Our Neighbors
If healthy communities are the organs of a healthy society, the statistics about the decline of American community are terrible and forecast an ominous future. Right now, a whopping 46 percent of adults report feeling somewhat or mostly lonely. Only 20 percent of people regularly spend time with their neighbors, down from a third of Americans who visited with neighbors at least twice a week four decades ago. Incredibly, now only 31 percent of people even know most of their neighbors.
We are also experiencing an epidemic of communal disconnection, with church membership and attendance declining from 70 percent in 1998 to less than 50 percent today. Fraternal organizations, once a central and connective feature of almost all communities, such as the Elks Club, Knights of Columbus, Scouting, and parent-teacher associations, have experienced incredible declines in membership over the last 20 years. And when was the last time you attended a community parade?
It very well may be that the cadence of modern life does not give way to building the deep connections that only meaningful time shared together can create. It does not provide for the mutual experiences that build shared understanding, empathy, and a temperance born of perspectives we cannot see — except through the lens of people whose motivations we deeply know to be benevolent.
Such things we may lose when we discard our sense of community or misplace it through lack of attention and care. Once upon a time, your community was important; necessary, even. In a very real sense, a community is a team. It is a group of people navigating the uncertainties and vagaries of the world together, lest nature’s blind happenstance overtake them. A community guards each other, cares for one another, is concerned for each other, and protects one another.
In the past, the community was necessary for the very survival of its people and families. And survival was the difficult task the community undertook together, with the skills and perseverance of each necessary for its success. What we fail to see is that perhaps the real fruit of that great endeavor, beyond survival, was generating the connection, fealty, love, and trust that nourish human happiness in ways that food, water, and shelter cannot.
Forgoing Our Duty to Community
Today, we are freed from the burden of community. Our fealty and our attendant duty to others is no longer required. We no longer need to struggle together to survive. Scientific and economic advancement allows us to live without caring for others, and without receiving care ourselves. We don’t need anyone. Because we don’t need anyone, we can live without the duties community once required.
At first blush, it seems a liberation. One can now do whatever one wants, whenever one wants. But like the newly minted lottery winner, we are not naturally very good at tempering our selfish desires. In the face of such freedom, we often eagerly discard the tempering force that duty provides, and in so doing, we forego the benefits of connection and belonging that fulfilling our duty to the community provides.
Like exercise, the personal benefit of fulfilling our duty to the community does not manifest itself immediately. It is only though the consistent fulfillment of those duties, in concert with others, that the fruits of belonging come to us — in the relationships forged, in the intimate knowledge of those with whom we live and die, in the sense of purpose we feel when our lives are connected to others about whom we cannot help but deeply care.
Indeed, it is duty that forces us to invest our time and energy in those around us. And it is in that investment of time and energy that we can harvest its benefit. But in a country where only 24 percent of people in urban areas know most of their neighbors, what social structure will replace the function of the community in fulfilling its traditional role in human flourishing?
In its absence, we find isolation, loneliness, depression, and even suicide. For all the material wealth we have, we are becoming a most unhappy and lonely people.
Losing Our Principles and Purpose
In addition to the loss of our sense of belonging and purpose, the decline of the community has led to a decline in our collective sense of principle and purpose. In a community, the deeply shared and intertwined histories of its people provide a presupposition of benevolence among its constituents. In other words, in a community, we know that those who differ from us are fundamentally good and decent people.
We approach disagreement with a sense of equanimity because we believe their motivations are good. We believe they offer their opinions with the community’s benefit in mind. In the absence of community, it is easy to see those with whom we disagree as not only wrong, but evil. Without intimately knowing them, we can easily fill in the blanks of their character with a narrative that paints them in the worst light.
As we atomize into individuals and away from community, our shared perspective is shaped not by the communal effort of, for example, caring for a widow and her children, but rather by what groups we resonate with on Facebook. That is a powerful difference. In such an environment, is it any wonder that we tribalize into ideological enemy camps and cast the worst possible aspersions upon each other in the echo chambers of our personal internet?
Creating a Lonely Living Hell
In “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis described hell as a city where people begin to live further and further apart. They simply cannot stand each other and prefer instead to live as far away as possible from the annoying obligations they have to others. In the end, they live in a lonely hell.
While we may not live further apart, still we move away from one another. In the process, we create a freer but lonelier existence than the one we had. We may not describe this as hell, but I am struck by the fact that, given the choice, so many of us would choose not to develop deep and meaningful connections with those around us.
The community as a central force for human flourishing has been self-evident for thousands of years. In fact, it may be that we are biologically wired to function best in the environment that community provides. In its absence, we lose a sense of purpose, connection, and belonging, and we lose common values and principles that community requires and allows. In its absence, we are more lonely, more isolated, and more suspicious of one another.
In my travels across an internet that is fast becoming my faux community, I often am left asking, who the hell are these people? Who the hell, indeed.