In many ways, cultivating relationships into a thriving community looks like cultivating a garden. Human beings can tolerate uprooting from one place to another, but every time this happens we disrupt those tiny little fibers of attachment from which we draw life.
For a long time now, our culture has faced a crisis of loneliness. In January of 2018, Theresa May created an official government ministry dedicated to dealing with the problem of loneliness in the British population. In Japan, as many as half a million people, called hikikomori, live as extreme recluses, rarely leaving their apartments. While most of us have successfully avoided the most dire symptoms of modernity, nearly all of us will recognize the creeping influence of isolation and collapsing community upon our way of life. Addiction to our cell phones surely plays a role, since we frequently choose to entertain ourselves rather than connect with real human beings right in front of us, but the sickness comes from deeper patterns of culture which we cannot simply blame on the latest technological bogeyman.
Before cell phones, we embraced a culture that prioritizes career so much that people who want to get ahead are willing to move around every few years and sacrifice those friendships that began to bud in the last city.
We tell ourselves that we will keep in touch, but we never really do. On top of this, we also succumb to the constant temptations which tell us that we should do whatever makes us happy. As a result, we dump relationships or churches that start to make us feel judged, constrained, or just plain bored. But if living like this is supposed to make us happy, why are we so miserable?
The dull ache of loneliness warns us that we were created for more than this. Even from the first days of Adam we see that it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). God designed human beings to be in community with one another, to love and be loved, and we only truly flourish when we find our place within a community of people where relationships run deep.
Since human nature requires it, community seems to have happened more or less automatically for most of history. When you live in a small town, in a country with no interstates, and in a society where divorce is rare, relationships will happen. They may not be ideal relationships, but relationships they will be. As we have chipped away at the foundations brick by brick, however, we are left homeless and wondering why. It remains for us to practice intentionally and thoughtfully what our ancestors may have taken for granted as something that happens naturally.
Many of my students seem to think that good relationships can be had through authenticity and common interests. If two people are both into Fortnite and are “real” with one another, they can be friends. Authenticity and interests are related because sharing common interests makes it easy to talk, and when conversations are easy rather than boring, both parties can express who they really are—or so the story goes. They also seem to think that good relationships are the kind of thing that can and should form quickly. If two people do not “click” right away, this shows that the whole thing is awkward, and thus not worth pursuing. Solid relationships, however, are often hard. They take time, and time requires commitment. This ought to be a platitude, but in the Wasteland, platitudes become oracles.
In many ways, cultivating relationships into a thriving community looks like cultivating a garden. A careful gardener can certainly transplant one of his plants from one spot in the garden to another, but every time he moves the plant, the tiny root hairs which absorb most of the water must regrow and many of the longer roots must be left in the ground. Similarly, human beings can tolerate uprooting from one place to another, but every time this happens we disrupt those tiny little fibers of attachment from which we draw life. We read in the Bible about heroes of the faith such as Paul or Abraham whom God sends on a mission away from home. In America, nearly everyone descends from immigrant ancestors, who frequently made new homes with little more than what they could carry. It seems to me, however, that these people saw the move away from home as a sacrifice. They gave up something deeply valuable because they pursued something higher or simply because they had no other choice. Our culture, by contrast, sees a move from one major city to another every few years as a desirable life plan.
I have talked to many people in their twenties who articulate just such a life plan and do not think they are sacrificing anything. I fear for those who will wake up one day in their fifties wondering why they have so few real friends, feeling like a wilted rose bush that has been moved around the garden.
The way forward depends on vision and commitment. First, those of us in the Wasteland must recover a vision of how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together (Psalm 133:1). Even if we cannot live it out just yet, we must be able to set before our minds an understanding of the goal.
Further, we must articulate this understanding to one another, especially those with whom we hope to build lasting relationships. Agreement on the destination helps two people walk down the road together, and the act of articulation forces us to clarify just how good and pleasant a life together really is. Second, we must commit to staying put, and this means sacrificing less important things. Most conservatives will still understand what this looks like in the context of marriage, although I fear the wider culture has lost even this. We understand that we must prize our marriages over our careers or self-centered pursuits. If a husband gets a job in Chicago and his wife gets a job in Atlanta, then someone needs to make a sacrifice. If interests diverge or conflict arises, we treasure the marriage enough to overcome these obstacles.
We must bring the same thinking to bear on other relationships, especially those that form a church. Just imagine a society, or even a conservative minority within society, where people normally committed themselves first to a stable set of relationships and only after this looked around for work in the area. Commitment also means that we are willing to forgive and ask for forgiveness when we inevitably get hurt, become disappointed, or simply fail to live up to a utopian ideal. The deeper relationships go, the more potential there is for pain. Many people keep things shallow precisely to avoid the kind of sting that can only come from close friends. Knowing in advance that we will be hurt by our friends, our commitment must come from our vision of just how good it is in the end for brethren to dwell together. The alternative is bitter isolation.
Despite seeing the modern world as a relational wasteland, I also see signs of life on the horizon. While many of the students that I mentioned seem unaware of their need for lasting relationships or have naïve views about how good relationships will develop, I also talk to a few who are hungry. By the grace of God, I find myself in a very strong local church with stable friends who share a similar vision. I hear reports of other communities springing up and flourishing. The future of such groups is bright as they take in refugees from the world of loneliness, but we must look again and again to the foundations. It was by neglecting the foundations that we found ourselves in the present crisis, so we must build the new house all the more carefully and patiently if we want it to become a home.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.