Sunday, April 22, 2012

Solitude or loneliness...

In 1950, four million people in this country lived alone. These days, there are almost eight times as many, thirty-one million, according to a recent article in The New Yorker.  Today, more than fifty per cent of U.S. residents are single, nearly a third of all households have just one resident, and five million adults younger than thirty-five live alone.

Solitude was often something we sought out for healing, for reflection, and for change.  Now it is more and more the preferred lifestyle of those across all divisions of age and economic status.  Solitude is not the result of time apart in order to heal up from a broken relationship or marriage or job loss or other psychological or personal event or issue.  It is increasingly both the goal and the result of our choice to live alone and apart.  Even in circumstances where one shares space with a roommate, it is not uncommon for the shared space to hold completely separate lives.  In other cases, experience with roommates is seen as a cost greater than the financial commitment of living on your own.

Communities and their organizations are dying for lack of civic participation. Between 1973 and 1994, the number of people who held a leadership role in any local organization fell by more than half.  Our solitary lifestyles are not only reflected in the address where we reside but by the way we approach the community around us.  Increasingly, that means less involvement in and less ownership over those civic organizations that once provided both companionship and an opportunity to do good for others.  Is there any PTA group or civic organization or community club or softball or baseball league that does not struggle to find officers and leaders to continue the work that often picks up where government leaves off?  That also included churches where the lack of volunteers has left us struggling to fill elective positions and seldom with working groups of folks to manage facilities or direct the church's full program of activities and ministries.  Where I am, paid staff does what in the past volunteers would have done - and no one would have thought of having it any other way!

Heroic is how we tend to view the elderly who remain independent and live alone (as do the vast majority of  the widowed, for example).  But at the same time, the result is that many of these have no one who holds them accountable for medicines or diet or cleanliness.  Is this independent living or a substitute for living in the real sense of that term?

I can hardly recall a time being alone -- whether as a child or adult.  I did not have my own room until I was nearly out of high school.  Growing up, I played in groups of kids from the neighborhood, with cousins, and with my brother.  My life revolved not only around parents but around extended family.  I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  There were regular family reunions -- sometimes including upwards of several hundreds of various kin inhabiting church basements on a Sunday afternoon.  When I did go away to college, I did not have a choice of whether to have a roommate -- we all did.  My whole college years were lived within groups of friends -- whether studying, goofing off, or at the local bar.  I am not sure I actually had a date in which the girl and I did things alone until college and she turned out to be my wife (of soon to be 34 years).  Wherever we lived as young marrieds and young parents, our lives included friendships and weekly scheduled connections with other folks who shared our common circumstance (kids of a certain age).

My vocation as a Pastor means I am forever with people but the way I connect with people has changed a great deal.  I spend more time on the phone or emailing or meeting for coffee and less time in committee meetings or home visitation.  If I were more adventurous, that might include more texting or tweeting or social media (the every pervasive Facebook).  Even the hospitalized are sent home and, unless they are married or have family to take care of them, they are on their own.  Hospital visitation has changed tremendously since I watched mentors teach me the art of pastoral care for the sick and shut-in.

Our pot lucks are not what they were (more buffets of the latest offerings from Wal-Mart or Kroger than home cooking) and the people do not stay and visit all afternoon the way they once did.  Our seasonal services of Advent, Lent, and Holy Week compete against busy work schedules, youth activities, and the overwhelming desire to just go home, kick off the shoes, eat your take out in front of the TV, and get away from the world for a while.

Funny, I recall a time when singles were considered with suspicion in a community, were not allowed to own homes or rent apartments, were confined to boarding houses (substitutes for families), and assessed higher taxes than marrieds.  Now communities value singles because they don't cost us money with their kids in schools and they spend money in restaurants and shopping malls that is taxed and comes right back into the community.

Is this solitude good or bad?  Depends on how you look at it.  Underneath it all, loneliness is epidemic.  Yet, funny as it may seem, we seem more content with the misery of our loneliness than we do inspired to break out of the solitude.  Even when we sit together at a table and eat in the restaurant or at home, we are busy updating our status or sending a text or watching a YouTube video or playing a video game, or going to because, well, we are bored.

Community was once one of the primary needs fulfilled by family and church.  Even in our loneliness, we seem less involved in both than we ever were.  I am not sure it will change soon.  Don't get me wrong.  I am not complaining like an old coot lamenting how wonderful it was in the good old days and how bad the younguns are today.  I am merely reflecting on how things have changed, how our isolation has left us both lonely and yet fearful of community (or at least less convinced we need community it is comes at a cost of some of our independence).  With this has grown increasing cynicism with regard to the social structures and institutions of our past and growing impatience and intolerance with those who differ from us or disagree with us.  The disintegration of our communities and our culture is easily verified by statistic and by listening into the way we talk about each other.

And guess what?  I am lonely.  My own life, like the lives of those around me, is more and more invested in work and the things I must do to keep the home going and less and less in the friendships and community that defined and still define my parent's lives (at age 82 and 85 this year).  If you are reading this, I bet you are nodding in agreement -- no matter what your age.  I have no solution.  Only the rambling observations or, rather, meandering thoughts of a Pastor looking out on the front porch of life in the 21st century. 

So what do you think?

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