Published in The Mustard Seed Sentinel, 4/24/21~
[T]here were times . . . mainly during the . . . harvest, when we would all be together. The men would go early to have the benefit of the cool of the morning. The women would finish their housework and then gather, sometimes bringing dishes already cooked, to lay on a big feed at dinnertime; and then after the dishes were done, they would go out to help in the field or the barn for the rest of the day. . . . This was our membership.” (Hannah Coulter)
Through most of America’s history, people grew up in small towns. They knew each other and helped each other. Most people were part of a community.
Modern people have accused these forebears of sexual division, relegating women to the kitchen. But women worked in the fields too. Men and women grew food and other crops. Often the division of labor meant he worked harder than she did growing the food. And she worked harder than he did to bring to put it on the table. Children grew up learning a good measure of hard work.
It wasn’t about who did what work. It was about making sure the work got done. Everyone had a part to play, a contribution to make, a purpose to serve.
People worked hard, some just to survive–others, to thrive. They grew old, perhaps at a faster rate than we do. They were tired. But they were not lonely.
That was then. This is now.
A teenage girl stands on her back porch breaking glass jars and cutting her own skin. Trying to cut her way “through the hurt down to the core of things.” Trying to end the pain of her heart.
A man sits alone in a cold cell, isolated from those he loves, those who love him.
Ann Voskamp was the girl on the porch suffering the death of her younger sister, which devastated their family.
She was traumatized. Trauma comes different ways.
Natan Sharansky was a man in a cell. He was a Jew in the Soviet Union, a refusenik, a prisoner of the KGB. His jailers hoped to cultivate Stockholm syndrome within him. That happens when a victim connects with his captors. Trust grows. Secrets spill. Injustice finds new prey.
Voskamp had no one to trust with the pain within her. Sharansky fought to stay connected to those he loved and trusted, if only in his heart and mind. He worked hard not to trust the untrustworthy KGB.
There’s an odd irony in saying that Voskamp and Sharansky are not alone.
In 1985, ten percent of Americans were completely alone in their lives–no confidants, no one to count on. By 2009, that number had grown to 25 percent. Stephen Ilardi calls this nation “perilously isolated.” Isolation numbers continued to grow until COVID only made isolation worse.
And it’s not a problem confined to America. In 2014, an EU survey deemed Britain “the loneliness capital of Europe.” And it isn’t a problem just for those who live alone.
Rebecca Harris: “So why are we getting lonelier? Changes in modern society are . . . the cause.
We live in nuclear family units, often living large distances away from our extended family and friends, and our growing reliance on social technology rather than face-to-face interaction is thought to be making us feel more isolated. It means we feel less connected to others and our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding.”
More superficial. Less rewarding. Virtual reality gives us virtual connections and produces virtual lives. A virtual life does not contain relationships that can heal our hurts.
We are less real on social media. But sometimes we are too real. We say things to our screens we would never say to someone’s face.
The venom we exuded in the recent election makes us unapproachable to someone smarting from defeat.
If we won, we don’t care. It’s our turn. We build walls against the pain of others. We prove ourselves unworthy of their trust.
If we lost, bitterness can grow inside us. And with it, we build a wall to keep others out. But the wall keeps hurt inside, and we look for ways to let it out.
Voskamp: “Who doesn’t know what it’s like to smile thinly and say you’re fine when you’re not, when you’re almost faint with pain?”
Today, loneliness is an American epidemic. Cigna released a study indicating that most Americans are lonely. We might expect that among the elderly–especially those who live alone–but that isn’t the case. In fact, older people have done the best job of keeping themselves from being isolated.
The loneliest among us are the young.
Cigna says the problem is bigger than social isolation. Cigna is an insurance company. Loneliness is a health problem–as harmful as smoking–making some more prone to heart disease. Loneliness is costly to insurance companies and costly to our society.
And social loss happens in more than dollars. Lonely people are more prone to substance abuse. Loneliness has become a social crisis.
Author of Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry sums up our problem this way: “We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”
An exodus back to the farming life, the farming community, doesn’t seem reasonable. Much of the available farmland has been consolidated or subdivided. But there are things we can do.
Many of these things came more easily to farm folks. Working together, eating together. We can do those things too. But we have to be more intentional than they had to be.
We can grow some of our own food. Some of us already grow tomatoes–even in pots–even in apartments. What better way to show the young that food doesn’t originate in a store? What better way to explain the concept of cultivation?
In cultivating plants, we cultivate purpose.
And we can cultivate relationships. A local faith-based organization developed a program where volunteers talk with nursing home residents once or twice a week. The caregivers found that their residents were happier. I would not be surprised to find that the volunteers were too.
For investing in others cultivates our souls.
When we give ourselves, we find meaning and purpose—elements we lost when we changed our way of living.
When we as a society left the farm for the town or the suburbs, we thought we were moving to a better place, an easier life. Ease has shown itself to be a false promise for peace in our hearts.
With purpose and giving, we find that peace. And that is something we can pass along.
“It is not good for the man to be alone.” Genesis 2:18