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 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. â€œI will show you Hell,â€? 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 rabbiâ€™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 anyoneâ€™s arm, no one could get the food into his mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible. â€œNow I will show you Heaven,â€? 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 spoonsâ€”but here they were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. At first, the rabbi could not understand. â€œIt is simple, but it requires a certain skill,â€? said the Lord. â€œYou see, they have learned to feed each other.â€?