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‘Friendly Benches’: Elites’ Response To The Loneliness They’ve Created Borders On Satire

loneliness man sitting alone on a bench

In the biblical stories of creation, being alone is the first thing God declares to be “not good.” We are relearning this truth about ourselves the hard way. Loneliness is killing people.

The ruling classes in Western nations are, belatedly, starting to notice. For instance, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recently penned an article titled “Let’s Wage War on Loneliness.” He recounts how unhealthy loneliness is and praises British efforts to address it — including the appointment of a “minister for loneliness.” It is nice that the problem has been recognized, but Kristof’s framing of it, along with the British response he endorses, reveal the cluelessness of Western elites.

A skilled satirist could hardly have invented a more savage indictment of our elites than this view of loneliness as a public health problem. But loneliness isn’t terrible because it is unhealthy. Rather, it is unhealthy because it is terrible — a failure of human flourishing that goes far beyond ill health.

Loneliness is not an unhealthy habit such as smoking or eating too much. It is an affliction of the soul. We are relational beings, and to be lonely is to be deprived of the communion with others that makes life worth living.

Why Are People So Lonely?

To his credit, Kristof observes the immediate sources of the problem, writing, “Extended families have dissolved, and social institutions like churches, bowling leagues and neighborhood clubs have frayed. We are no longer so deeply embedded in our communities.” Well, yes, but why?

Unfortunately, this was the extent of Kristof’s diagnosis. He failed to probe how or why communities and families have been assailed from both sides of the culture and political wars. On the one side is a left that despises the restraints and norms of traditional communities and relationships. On the other is a right that has been indifferent to the solvent of economic globalization. And then there is the neoliberal centrist consensus, which supports cultural liberalism and big business.

There is ample intellectual work to be done here, and at least on the right, this is where the most interesting writers and ideas are to be found. Kristof, however, does not even nod in this direction. He seems to have deliberately avoided the big questions, instead writing about the British efforts to establish “friendly benches” (which is to say, park benches) and extend government grants to board game clubs.

But such measures cannot reverse social disintegration and loneliness. They are spiritual problems, exacerbated by cultural and economic practices and policies, which Kristof and his class have promoted.

Religion Is Much More Than a Social Club

For example, Kristof has scolded conservative Christians for our unwillingness to make peace with the Sexual Revolution, even though it has likely done more than anything else to increase loneliness by dissolving family and community bonds. In fairness, Kristof is one of the few liberal writers who has an occasional kind word for orthodox Christians, but his admiration for Christianity seems limited to what he perceives as its social utility as a philosophy of benevolence. He is drawn to the self-sacrificial love and mercy many Christians display, but he balks at orthodox teachings on sexuality and the supernatural.

Thus, Kristof, like many before him, wishes to abstract the social benefits of religion from its doctrines. The problem with this is the same as the problem of a government minister for loneliness. Religion as social utility quickly dies, and so will friendship as a socially useful public health measure.

People may be drawn to a church for social reasons, or even for its good works, but the core of a church is sustained by believers, not socializers or volunteer social workers. Friendships develop around shared loves, and in church, friendship with God overflows into friendship with man. In contrast, church as a charitable social club is rarely sustainable, for there is no longer any unifying shared love.

Political Leaders Can’t Fix Loneliness

Much the same holds true for social clubs. Board game night is sustained by people who enjoy board games in themselves. It will not be kept up by people for whom it is the social equivalent of going to the gym, nor by the people who only come for the free pizza.

Those of us concerned about community can expect no real help from our decadent leadership class. The technocratic tweaks Kristof endorses will do little or nothing to remedy the epidemic of loneliness in Western societies. These little projects are the governmental equivalent of a perky college RA trying to prod a dorm into camaraderie. Indeed, subsidized game clubs and “friendly benches” have more than a whiff of student government about them.

Promoting these weak measures reveals the stunted imaginations of the West’s leadership class and an unwillingness to confront their failures. They have been indifferent to the condition of communities and families until their dissolution becomes a public health problem, and even then, the elites only view it as a chance to appoint another bureaucrat to push another program into our lives.

But we do not need an official Minister for Friendship. Rather, we need friends to whom we can minister and who will minister to us.