In The Absence Of The Social

I am of the belief that much of what ails this republic and its citizenry is connected in some fashion to the ongoing erosion of community life. The less we are connected to one another and the less we experience interpersonal closeness, the more we grow discontented, alienated, and despondent, seeking to fill or numb the void with material consumption, an overemphasized work life, or other distractions and addictions. Yesterday, news of a recent study documenting a decrease in the core social network of many Americans was released, as reported here by Reuters:

Americans’ circle of close friends shrinking

Americans are more socially isolated than they were 20 years ago, separated by work, commuting and the single life, researchers reported on Friday.

Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had “zero” close friends with whom to discuss personal matters. More than 50 percent named two or fewer confidants, most often immediate family members, the researchers said.

“This is a big social change, and it indicates something that’s not good for our society,” said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author on the study to be published in the American Sociological Review. Smith-Lovin’s group used data from a national survey of 1,500 American adults that has been ongoing since 1972.

She said it indicated people had a surprising drop in the number of close friends since 1985. At that time, Americans most commonly said they had three close friends whom they had known for a long time, saw often, and with whom they shared a number of interests. They were almost as likely to name four or five friends, and the relationships often sprang from their neighborhoods or communities.

Ties to a close network of friends create a social safety net that is good for society, and for the individual. Research has linked social support and civic participation to a longer life, Smith-Lovin said. more…

I am reminded of a wonderful parable that the author and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, offers in his book, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. I think that it pretty much says it all:

There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,� said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room in the middle of which was a very big round table. The people sitting at it were famished and desperate. In the middle of the table, there was an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. The people around the table were holding spoons with very long handles. Each person found that it was just possible to reach the pot to take a spoonful of the stew, but because the handle of the spoon was longer than anyone’s arm, no one could get the food into his mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible. “Now I will show you Heaven,� said the Lord, and they went into another room, exactly the same as the first. There was the same big round table and the same enormous pot of stew. The people, as before, were equipped with the same long-handled spoons—but here they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. At first, the rabbi could not understand. “It is simple, but it requires a certain skill,� said the Lord. “You see, they have learned to feed each other.�

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10 responses

  1. I was thinking about this the other day. I was reminded of this gem:

    “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
    Prime minister Margaret Thatcher, talking to Women’s Own magazine, October 31 1987

  2. Gradual moves of less down time… we’re becoming less engaged in the effort it takes to be social. Ask a teen what “hooking up” is….

  3. You want a big part of the problem? It’s this ludicrous notion that we’re supposed to be working 24/7. In case you hadn’t noticed, that doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

    Our heedless and headlong pursuit of materialism has warped our values to the point of perversion. We need to stop. Remember families? Families and friends take time to cultivate.

  4. klaus: WORD. it’s ridiculous. those of us with 2-parent households are expected to have 2 incomes. it’s pathetic that a stay-home mom is considered to not be pulling her own weight. meanwhile, standard maternity leave is a big fat SIX WEEKS. at 6 weeks, many babies aren’t even smiling yet, and we’re supposed to hand them over to total strangers for the whole day? INSANE!!

    but those of us who decide to raise OUR OWN KIDS–even if it means not having all the cool “stuff” that the neighbors have, or having to use WIC coupons–are looked at like leeches on society…

    what the heck is happening here?

  5. klaus: WORD. it’s ridiculous. those of us with 2-parent households are expected to have 2 incomes. it’s pathetic that a stay-home mom is considered to not be pulling her own weight. meanwhile, standard maternity leave is a big fat SIX WEEKS. at 6 weeks, many babies aren’t even smiling yet, and we’re supposed to hand them over to total strangers for the whole day? INSANE!!

    but those of us who decide to raise OUR OWN KIDS–even if it means not having all the cool “stuff” that the neighbors have, or having to use WIC coupons–are looked at like leeches on society…

    what the heck is happening here?

  6. Henry’s Mom, Much agreed. When my older daughter was about 6 weeks, my husband and I interviewed a home daycare provider, and I got the most horrible feeling in my gut. Not that her care wasn’t adequate, I’m sure it was. But I knew I was going to be missing something so important if I went back to work full-time.

    Thankfully with both my daughters we were able to make ends meet so I could stay home full-time for the first six months, then transition back to work part-time in the off-hours. We have found great supports with babysitters, one of whom is a teacher who decided to stay home with her daughters. She has also become one of my most cherished friends and has an amazing gift for appreciating the unique beauty that young children bring to the world.

    I realize some women need to work, but it bears saying, even though it seems like a cliche — you can’t bring back the years of early childhood or go back later and rebuild the foundation of that relationship. You need to make the most of what time you have in the short span before they are off and running.

  7. The lack of community and social interaction found in modern life can be attributed to the car.

    We commute long distances away from of nieghborhoods and our children are bussed to more distant schools.

    We shop in distant “big boxes” and we see doctors across the state.

    We do not have time for friends, family, nieghbors or community anymore.

  8. Andre, don’t forget the planned obsolescence of everything we are able to cheaply acquire… e.g. once upon a time, if you needed a certain tool(or whatever) and yours was broken (or you had none), you would borrow from a neighbor, and maybe enjoy a nice chat while you’re at it. Nowadays, everybody has to have their own everything, and if it breaks (which it will, long before it ‘should’), it’s easily/inexpensively replaced over at the WalMart. no reason to keep anything, including neighbors-as-friends.

    sad! and ultimately, very expensive on many levels, even tho it all seems so cheap…

  9. Andre, don’t forget the planned obsolescence of everything we are able to cheaply acquire… e.g. once upon a time, if you needed a certain tool(or whatever) and yours was broken (or you had none), you would borrow from a neighbor, and maybe enjoy a nice chat while you’re at it. Nowadays, everybody has to have their own everything, and if it breaks (which it will, long before it ‘should’), it’s easily/inexpensively replaced over at the WalMart. no reason to keep anything, including neighbors-as-friends.

    sad! and ultimately, very expensive on many levels, even tho it all seems so cheap…

  10. The community can be revived with better city zoning and planning, more playgrounds, dog parks, community-based schools.

    I was thinking of adding public transportation to the list but have you ever been on a crowded subway and no one says a word to anyone else?

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