Isolation is killing us and our politics

In July of 1995, Chicago saw the worst heat wave in years. For weeks leading up to it, the folks at the local weather station were warning people to stock up on water, run their air conditioner as much as possible, and to keep indoors. The city, used to lake effect cold, was not prepared for highs of 125 degrees Farenheit. Residents also experienced wildly extreme humidity, overnight temperatures, and stagnant air, making the crisis impossible to escape. As a result, over the course of just 8 days, at least 739 people ended up dying due to heat stroke, dehydration, heat exhaustion, kidney failure, and electrolyte imbalances. Local meat packing plants had to volunteer their refrigeration trucks because the medical examiner’s offices couldn’t keep up with all the corpses. That being said, some communities were hit harder than others, and it had a lot to do with the isolation of their residents.

Eric Klinenberg, sociology graduate student got ahold of the public records. He started combing through exactly who lived, who died, and why, and noticed the deaths were clustered geographically. Large numbers of people in neighborhoods like North Lawndale died from heat exhaustion, but almost nobody in neighborhoods like South Lawndale did.

Both neighborhoods came from the same socio-economic statuses and access to resources, although there were some modest differences (South Lawndale had a 15% higher median income as of 2020). There was really only one difference between the neighborhoods that thrived during the heat wave and the neighborhoods that suffered: community.

In neighborhoods like North Lawndale, the residents lived solitary lives. They did not really know each other or spend time together. Over in South Lawndale, however, everyone knew each other by name. They were a community, and their death toll was close to zero.

The fact of the matter is, human beings are created for community.

In the book of Genesis, God creates everything and calls it good – except one particular thing. After creating the first man, Adam, he says “it is not good for man to be alone.”

God created us for community.

You don’t exist for yourself. You are not just an individual. You were created for togetherness. You were created for relationships. You were created to know and be known by others. God didn’t make you to live your life alone. He didn’t design you to thrive in isolation. You were hard wired for community, for friendship, for connection, for relationship, for fellowship, for togetherness. You were not designed just to be an individual, just to be yourself. You were designed to be part of a group. Part of a family. Part of a whole. You were created for community.

And because God created you for community, it is not good for you to be alone.

This really runs against the grain of what we’ve been taught to believe and value as Americans. We live in a period defined by what a lot of sociologists refer to as “expressive individualism.”

O. Carter Snead – the Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and professor of Political Science at Notre Dame – defines expressive individualism as an ideology that “takes the individual, atomized self to be the fundamental unit of human reality. This self is not defined by its attachments or network of relations, but rather by its capacity to choose a future pathway that is revealed by the investigation of its own inner depths of sentiment.”

That’s densely packed and filled with technical jargon, but in its simplest form, it means that the most important thing in this worldview is to “be yourself,” and to follow your dreams and not let anyone get in the way.

The result of that mindset is that our communities are dying. Without the connection to the community, and the push for civic engagement that comes from it, democracy cannot long survive.

Think about it: after you get up in the morning, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, get dressed, go to work or school for somewhere between eight and 12 hours, what’s the first thing you want to do? You want to go home.

If your coworkers or fellow students invite you to go get a drink after your shift or play cards in the dorm room or something like that, you might groan and try to think of an excuse that will help you get out of it.

According to one study, “25% of Millennials report that they have no acquaintances. 22% report having no friends. 27% report having no close friends. 30% report having no best friends. 31% of Americans report finding it difficult to make friends.”

That loneliness has impacted both young and old, and it is detrimental.

One study found that between 1999 and 2019 the suicide rate increased by 33%. In 2019, a person killed themselves every 11 minutes on average, that’s about 48,000 in all. About 1.4 million more people attempted suicide. About 3.5 million planned out a suicide attempt before ultimately backing down. And about 12 million more people seriously thought about ending their own lives.

Isolation is killing our politics, and us. The best way to stop this is by intentionally forming bonds within your local community. Whether that is at school, church, local government meetings, or elsewhere. For our sake, and our children’s sake, change must start with us.

Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons (first iteration). He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way. This article was initially published in The American Commons, but was edited for clarity and brevity.

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