Do You feel that — the Emptiness?

The loss of community is making life almost unbearable

Will this slogan go down as the most tone-deaf and damaging to the souls of people and to the fabric of society in the history of America?

The history of the west?

Of the world?

Ok fine maybe New Coke was worse.

But seriously, what the hell did we think would happen???

Encouraging people during a pandemic that it’s gonna be ok because we’re all “alone together” is like using “addicted but free” as a slogan to drug addicts in a vain effort to wean them off drugs, or “cool smokey” as a comfort to folks fleeing a raging forest fire.

Not only does it make no sense it’s actually depressing and hurtful and yes even possibly harmful.

Millions of people over the past two years were just alone. There was no together involved.

The together was just a carrot being dangled. A carrot that was never caught.

Never enjoyed.

Remove the ‘together’ part of the phrase and alone is all that’s left, post-pandemic.

Just knowing others are going through something shared but you’re not allowed to see them is only comforting for a time. Say, two weeks. Or 15 days in government-speak.

It’s not enough.

Hitched

Even if you don’t believe in the butterfly effect, what about John Muir’s famous quote?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

You’ve gotta admit this idea that our choices affect others and of life having an inter-connectedness in general has been around for awhile.

Like, a LONG WHILE.

But even good people — and good ents — sometimes need reminding.

We made choices the past two years that rippled (understandably) to almost all parts of life. And we cannot claim ignorance as a defense.

The result of telling people to go to the beach but to not stop to look at the ocean (G. Newsom) or to go to the hardware store but not buy seeds to plant in your garden (G. Whitmer), orders which now sound ludicrous and even silly, when dumped in a huge basket involving 330+ million people and sprinkled with job losses and binge-watching and over-eating and online ranting, for an extended period of time might be, well yeah:

Awful.

Plus one ≠ enough

Jesus of Nazareth of course had a few disciples that he was closer to than the others — Peter and John to name two — but how many overall were part of his ministry team?

Right — 12.

Why not just stick with Peter, James, and John? Why trouble with a larger group, more mouths to feed, more attitudes to mold, more differing opinions to endure?

Best friends are invaluable and I believe life is richer with two or three over the course of a lifetime, but why are small groups — ie. community — so powerful to our lives and so important to the richness of life itself?

Go re-watch Dead Poets’ Society, A League of Their Own, or Stand By Me to be reminded of the power of small groups of people.

And of how much fun they are.

After all, John Hughes (In The Breakfast Club above) not only knew how fun small groups of people, are he EXPLOITED our need for shared experiences within a small group of people and our connectedness within a, wait for it: community.

Like, real community.

How many make a community?

Well according to John Hughes’ films its:

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off = 3
The Breakfast Club = 5
Home Alone | Vacation | Christmas Vacation | Uncle Buck
= A family

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — though they valued highly their longtime friendship, invested heavily in the group of friends known as the inklings, meeting weekly for years at a pub across the street from Oxford to dissect each others’ rough novels and discuss philosophy, but also to just be together.

“My happiest hours are often spent sitting up to the small hours in someone’s college room talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.” — C.S. Lewis

In other words to be in community.

In his seminal book on love, Lewis writes of the nature of friendship:

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Some say Lewis picked up in The Four Loves where Aristotle left off:

“Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.” — Aristotle

So if Aristotle and Jesus and Lewis and Tolkien and yes even John Hughes — if they all knew and lived out the practice of spending time with smallish groups of fellow compadres, and since we regard their words and teachings and ideas so highly, why why WHY are we experiencing such a drought of community?

Are we afraid to admit we need people?

Does it go against our extreme-individualism-slash-narcissism so prevalent today?

Of course it does.

Also we’re just coming off the strangest two years in America and maybe in the modern world.

But we can’t blame the pandemic response alone on our ebb in community.

Why?

Because many of us were noticing community was lacking long before the events of 2020–22.

I noticed it.

And I believe if you’re honest with yourself you noticed it too.

This photographer noticed it

Just five months before the now famous year of twenty-twenty, Eric Pickersgill released his ‘removed’ series — pictures of people together on their phones yet without the phones:

All photos ©Eric Pickersgill

Shocking right?

Yet all of us are guilty of having fallen into the same trap.

OK

So far we’ve got two reasons for our loss of community:

  1. Response to a global pandemic
  2. Smart phones

But those two reasons aren’t full reasons are they? They’re just nails in the tires of a car that was already not running on all cylinders.

Neil Howe (and William Strauss) discusses the generational reasons for the archetype of what we now call the iGeneration — and their mirroring of the ‘Silent’ generation post-great depression (a theory which I fully embrace) but I think in this case Dr. Jean Twenge nails the current aversion to social contact more accurately.

Despite the teen birthrate, drinking and driving, and yes even divorce all falling among the latest generation, Twenge found an unfortunate byproduct these behavioral changes has produced:

“They are obsessed with safety.” This abundance of caution emerges in data points like the fact that iGen’ers are less likely to get their driver’s license by the time they graduate high school, and to physically confront someone; “In 1991, fully half of 9th graders had been in a physical fight in the last twelve months, but by 2015, only one in four had.”

Less fighting sounds good doesn’t it?

But Brett McKay (Art of Manliness) sums up why this might not be so great:

“Twenge notes that iGen’ers are not just concerned about physical safety, but emotional safety as well. And this carefulness, which Millennials also evince, and which extends to avoiding any anxious, or awkward, or hurt feelings, creates a trepidation about pursuing things of real significance — paths that lead to healthy adventure, personal growth, and vital fulfillment in many of life’s domains.”

Which domains?

You guessed it — relationships.

Lest we think

This is only an iGen problem think again.

Happiness has been declining for decades, and though economics and politics and social issues are all valid concerns and *partial* reasons, what’s one salve we at least know relieves tension and allows us to feel moored as opposed to untethered, despite outer conflicts that will always be here?

Community.

I believe we were sold a replacement for community that as it turns out, is not as good as the real thing.

Oh Captain, my Captain!

Recently

I bumped into a friend who had just bought his first house and yet feels completely empty. After the usual updates on the new purchase, a few unexpected expenses, travel that had left him a bit worn down, he said what I suspected.

“I have no community,” he admitted.

After all what’s the point of a new house — or travel — a new car — a cool concert — what’s the point of any of it really if it’s not shared?

A spouse? Yes of course companionship is vital. But even married couples need community.

And this isn’t

An isolated incident or a made-up anecdote. I also spoke to a batch of other friends on my recent travels, two female and four male, and though some are “doing fine,” bottom line is all of them have less community than they did five years ago. Married. Single. All of them. Ditto my mom and step dad. Ditto almost everyone I know.

We need community.

We know we need community.

We’ve just never had to rebuild community.

At least not since before we were born.

So how do we do it?

I’m so glad you asked!

I have a simple five-step process that I have personally done so I know it works.

  1. Get over yourself (if you need to), reject the trending zeitgeist of self-serving individualism and admit you need community.
  2. Devote one night during the week to community — to friendships with more than one person. Doesn’t matter if you’re married or single, old or young. Treat this as you would a gift or a coupon — plan it out and don’t plan anything else except keeping this time free. I propose at least three hours, if not the whole evening. One hour isn’t enough, two is only a movie, so two-plus or even three is best.
  3. Take out a piece of paper right now and right down one or two people you either want to see or think might need to see you on this night. Then write two more blank lines below — you’ll fill them in time. I realize this sounds basic but just do it. Take the word of someone who’s name means old friend* and believe me when I say writing it down will help you forget about yourself and think of others. And that’s what needs to happen.
  4. Run errands with a friend. Again this one may not have the sexy togetherness of hitting a Def Leppard or Weezer reunion concert but helping each other in life opens up more possibilities than you can imagine. I bought a truck when I moved to Nashville and though many bitch about “everyone wanting to use my truck,” I make sure the people closest to me know that it’s available. Because what happens often after a couch donation or a BBQ purchase or an airport pickup? Dinner. Drinks. Conversation. Vulnerability. Community.
  5. Don’t always listen to your “stay home” voice. As a society we over-validated a practice that previously had been reserved only for introverts, germaphobes, and agoraphobes: bailing on everything at the last minute. Look if your bowels start gurgling or you’re flat on your back stay home, do what you need to. But ditch the pandemic-induced practice of thinking home is a safer place. It’s not. Out there is where life happens and that’s where you’re needed. The dinner party may start out slow. Parking may suck for the concert. A beer may be spilled on your head at the game. Or maybe, you might have to be the change you want. Make the party better. Ease the parking stress with your friend. In other words — GO BACK TO DOING LIFE TOGETHER.

Remember when you used to do that?

Wrap

Look I don’t have a corner on this market. I’ve had a strange couple of years like everyone, probably stranger than most, but not as strange as some I’m sure. The bottom line is I get concerned when I —

A. Hear despair from multiple people of different ages and in different states.

B. Don’t hear anybody talking about why.

Those are my red flags, those are the hints to me that a problem is brewing and we need to act before life becomes unlivable.

I was in Alaska for the first time last week and yep I found community. Good community.

I met this guy Joe who I might do a documentary on — he’s got a great story and I know we’ll meet again:

I was treated to a locals’ tour of AK including clam chowder and a good stout at Hatcher Pass with an old friend:

On the last day we visited this beautiful spot above the tiny “town” of Hope and picked some blueberries for breakfast and I took this shot:

The next morning I sat down on the plane from Anchorage and did something I don’t always do on airplanes — I said hi. The woman sitting next to me had passed through Hope and we swapped stories and small talk until I showed her the picture above.

She laughed and pulled out her phone to reveal almost the same shot. She asked if I saw the black teardrop trailer next to the Ford Raptor and I said yes I had, I had told the friend I was with I thought it was cool. I asked her what time she hiked out and was she wearing camo? She said 4- ish and yes.

From all the airlines and all the seats I sat next to someone who hiked right past me on Palmer Pass outside of Hope — population 150.

I only found this out because I wasn’t thinking of what I was doing after the flight, of the stresses of my mom’s increasing needs, I wasn’t even thinking of my possibly having to move back to California to care for my mom (which is now officially happening).

All I was thinking of was that a three-hour plane flight would probably be more enjoyable with some conversation.

And I was right.

Katherine if you’re reading this I hope all 14 horses are doing well and I hope the long drive to North Dakota is enjoyable. I’ll research a few more podcasts for the return and get back to ya’.

Community — it’s out there ya’ll, but you might be out of practice finding it. Maybe we all are.

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Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.