This year, Verna and I read through Jayber Crow together for the first time. Wendell Berry’s fascinating and riveting—if somewhat rambling—fictional story about a small town in Kentucky from the early to late 20th century has stuck in my mind, making me process America’s recent history from the lens of its social fabric. Berry’s main character, Jayber Crow, is a socially-challenged unmarried barber who lives through decades of changes that time brings to the town of Port William and reflects on those shifts from the perspective of a nostalgic elderly man.
Besides the joy of some of his completely relatable lines (“Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons”), Crow brought to me a working picture of the togetherness that a strong Community maintains. And I’m not thinking of “community” the way this word is commonly played on the pens of modern writers (the “African-American community,” the “LGBTQ+ community,” etc.) where the word serves no greater meaning than to designate a group of people who share one attribute in common (race, sexual orientation, etc.) but don’t necessarily even live in the same state, let alone town or real Community. I capitalize it to mean, ironically, what the word has, until recently, always meant: people who don’t necessarily share anything in common other than living within walking distance and actually seeing each other on a regular basis.
Community is what the elderly Crow remembers fondly: the reality of going out onto the street of your town and visiting a shop, a salon, or one’s church and expecting to see people who wave cheerily to you, stop to tell you a random story about their crops this year, or congratulate you on a recent achievement you never told them in particular about. Community happened in the field working together, on the street going to work, at the local bar after work, and in each other’s homes for tea or a meal. It was as natural as breathing because the people within the town knew each other and fully expected to spend the rest of their lives with that set of people.
I often have wondered why that Community ideal seems so strange and impossible to me. It was fully natural a generation or two ago. My dad lived on a street with a stable set of neighbors and can still rattle off the list of names: the Looks, the Longstreths, and a litany of other names I have forgotten. And with that comes stories—a rich repertoire of the quirks and strengths of maybe a dozen families that he knew as he grew up in a suburb in Philadelphia.
But as I grew up during the first formative years of my life on S. Queen Street, I didn’t play for hours with the neighborhood children and get to know their family dynamics and sit down for a meal at their house. I remember some people who were our neighbors briefly before moving on, and have a few stories of my own. But I didn’t grow up expecting to know my neighbors and to meet them when I went to the grocery store. I didn’t expect to swap funny stories with them randomly as I passed—well, except with the one older man next door who had lived in that development for 50+ years and for that matter, shared an ideal of Community as he had it when he was growing up, no doubt.
How did we lose Community life? And how has it affected us?
First, there’s some old news. As Berry’s Crow would quickly point out, the building of highways and interstates made it possible to take what was a two-hour car trip in 30 minutes, making everything seem so much more “connected” while simultaneously destroying Community in tens of thousands of small towns. Wendell Berry would know, as he lived this era himself. As highways connected everything in a circuitry of speed and development, the small town began to disintegrate as the younger generation headed for the larger towns and cities to become a part of that progress. Gradually, not only did the closeness of Community cease to be a reality, even the memory has been relegated to the oldest generations. The norm now is frequent travel, multiple uprootings throughout life, few lifelong friends, and precious little Community.
Add to the factor of highways (and the related changes of cars, airplanes, and housing issues) the massive developments in connectedness technologies like the internet and smartphones. Many of today’s psychologists—people like Sherry Turkle, Jean Twinge and Jonathan Haidt—believe that this itself is devastating our social connectedness.
A few key statistics to note:
- The NIH has found that the number of leisure minutes per day spent with non-household people has decreased dramatically from 2003 to 2019 (not counting the pandemic!).1
- Social “companionship” as measured by doing “just hanging out” activities has suffered in the last two decades, dropping by an average of nearly half an hour per day.2
- Americans spend on average less than half the amount of time with friends that we spent in 2003.3
- From 2011-2018 (starting roughly the time when smartphone usage began to be commonplace), “rates of adolescent depression in the U.S. increased at least 60%, with larger increases among girls. Happiness and life satisfaction declined after 2012. Emergency department admissions for self-harm behaviors tripled among 10- to 14-year-old girls between 2009 and 2015. Emergency department admissions for suicide attempts or ideation doubled or increased substantially, as did self-poisonings.”4
- Sherry Turkle, in her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation makes the argument that through our virtual relationships, we are harming our in-person interactions (the sort that make a real Community). Turkle, an MIT professor and researcher, had the following to say about the way our phones impact our in-person interactions:
Eighty-nine percent of Americans say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, and 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in. Basically, we’re doing something that we know is hurting our interactions. I’ll point to a study. If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things here you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.5
One more factor in our disconnectedness is worth mentioning in passing: church participation, one bastion of social connectedness in an increasingly scattered world, is sharply declining. In the last 30 years, the percentage of Americans who report having gone to church in the last week has dropped from 34% to 20%.6 In 1940, that number was 40%.7 One would suspect that this drop in connection would—if not replaced by a similar social nexus—result in higher levels of isolation from each other.
We are increasingly connected, whether through highways or through our devices, and increasingly disconnected socially. Our social isolation is becoming so bad that the surgeon general of the US, Vivek Murthy, just issued an advisory warning people of its ill effects. In his words,
The lack of social connection poses a significant risk for individual health and longevity. Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively. More broadly, lacking social connection can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, poor or insufficient social connection is associated with increased risk of disease, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke…8
Our lack of social connectedness is, in fact, probably affecting us physically. There has been a rapid (and predictable) increase in depression, suicide, and stress-induced health problems in the US recently. Just since 2015, rates of those who currently are experiencing depression has gone from 10% to an unbelievable 17% of the US population.9 Rates of anxiety have ticked up in the last 15 years, particularly among younger people, doubling from 7% in 2008 to 14% in 2018.10 Suicide rates have more than doubled in the last 20 years, from around 10 in 100,000 people in 2001 to 22 in 100,000 people in 2022.11
We know that social isolation is correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.12 To have less of a social web is to have more danger of physical and mental health issues. And yet we continue to get more disconnected as the years go on. We even tell each other in our self-help books that we need to help ourselves (Christian version: “Just have a personal relationship with Jesus”) and our mental health issues will be fixed. In reality, we desperately need each other. Johann Hari wrote in his controversial and fascinating book Lost Connections:
I kept noticing a self-help cliché that people say to each other all the time, and share on Facebook incessantly. We say to each other: “Nobody can help you except you.” It made me realize: we haven’t just started doing things alone more, in every decade since the 1930s. We have started to believe that doing things alone is the natural state of human beings, and the only way to advance. We have begun to think: I will look after myself, and everybody else should look after themselves, as individuals. Nobody can help you but you. Nobody can help me but me. These ideas now run so deep in our culture that we even offer them as feel-good bromides to people who feel down—as if it will lift them up. …this is a denial of human history, and a denial of human nature. It leads us to misunderstand our most basic instincts. And this approach to life makes us feel terrible.
Rather than point each other to personal answers, we should look for building a corporate Community where social needs can be met by finding our place in the social web. I think Anabaptists have done well in many of our communities at maintaining a strong connection through the church community, but we run the risk of losing that connection that we have managed to save from the pre-connected age, as we keep in step with the broader culture with internet and smartphones defining our social lives.
Keep your friends, don’t leave church lightly, learn to reach out in-person to friends and just hang out. Leave the phone off the table. And make Community happen everywhere you go with that small, close group of friends that you know best.