Finding friends in an unfriendly world

In my post on November 22, 2011, I compared the Occupy Movement and open source software collaborators—two forms of community in which people are connected with one another by shared values and commitments rather than by geographical proximity or kinship. I also referred to the church, which is another specialized community. People across time and around the world associate in small groups, rehearse “enduring attitudes toward first and last things” (to quote philosopher Susanne Langer), and then continue with ordinary life as people transformed.

My reflections on the church as community were shaped, in part, by a front-page article in the Portland Oregonian, which was headlined with a question and answer: “Do you feel lonely? It’s not just you.” The article was based on a study by sociologist Miller McPherson who reported that one person in every four “has no one with whom to discuss very important matters.”

The study indicated that the average person has only two close friends; twenty years ago, the number would have been three. McPherson declares that loneliness has been growing rapidly and that she has “never seen a change that big in something so basic.” She suggests that Portland is different; something about her city and its people increases the likelihood that they will find friends. Maybe loneliness is not as great a problem in Portland as in other cities across the country.

McPherson’s report can be paired with Robert D. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, in which he offers a thoroughly documented description of changes in American social behavior since the latter part of the 1900s. Participation in all kinds of organizations, including churches, bowling leagues, lodges, and service clubs has dwindled significantly. Americans, he argues, are losing the social capital that they need in order to maintain a life that is rich, full, and satisfying.

Some have suggested that these changes in life are caused by the nature of life in cities. People are not thrown into ongoing, close, personal relationships as they were when everyone lived in smaller communities. The result is that people spend more time isolated in private homes or personal automobiles, and they are lonely.

Another reason may be the fact that most people have to devote more time and energy to making a living than used to be the case. Today, two-income families are the norm, and even with two incomes most households live less secure lives than was enjoyed by one-income families a generation ago.

Whatever the cause, people today need to find communities of love and support where they can find strength and to which they can offer their strength in return.

To read the rest of my thoughts, click Finding Friends To listen to a brief spoken meditation on a similar theme, see a recent video posted by Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

“Do you feel lonely? It’s not just you,” by Stephen Beaven, The Oregonian, June 24, 2006, A 1.

Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places, edited by Calvin Morrill, David A. Snow, and Cindy H. White (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

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