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Loneliness In The Big City

The new issue of Aaron Renn’s newsletter The Masculinist is out (you can subscribe for free here [2]). It’s an e-mail newsletter broadly about issues confronting men in Christian life, but it can be pretty broad. For example, here are Renn’s thoughts about loneliness in the big city. Renn lives in New York City:

If you are one of those people in a big city who is feeling lonely or disconnected, I’ve got a nearly sure-fire way to change things. Go look for someone who is even lonelier and more hurting than you, and go be that person’s friend.

I’m always astonished that there could be so many lonely people in the city. This would seem to be an easy problem to solve; just go be each other’s friends. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. I think in part that’s because we’re always looking for relationships that are going to deliver value to us, instead of us looking for how we’re going to deliver value to others. We always want to network up. We seldom want to network down. (Though we often stay in our lanes on social media, as I noted above).

This is an area where I part ways with a lot of the secular self-help gurus. Most of those guys tend to recommend pruning the deadweight relationships out of your life, and purging the losers, energy drainers, etc. There’s a place for that if you’re in unhealthy relationships. But Christians simply can’t apply that as a rule for life. We are called to be there for those who have nothing to offer us (or at least that we think don’t have anything to offer).

Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35).  Living in New York, I constantly see people who are obviously lonely and looking for friendship (and romance, and other kinds of relationships).  I see them in my own church. Presumably there are many people in NYC I don’t meet who are even more disconnected. There are a lot hurting people in the big city.

The best way to find a friend for yourself if you’re lonely is to be a friend to someone who’s even lonelier and more hurting than you.  As I discovered, this often isn’t even very hard if you’re simply willing to regularly spend time with the person. The relationship itself will then often just happen. (If you have some severe social interaction problem or disability, this might still be very challenging for you. I want to acknowledge that some people do have genuine problems here).

I think you’ll find that when you think you’re helping someone else, you actually end up helping yourself too. That’s the paradoxical nature of the Christian life. We’re called to do things contrary to our natural (sinful) inclinations. But this has a tendency to end up being the best policy for ourselves over the long haul.  The gospel isn’t a rulebook for life, or a set of if-then precepts for getting what we want.  The law is a tutor to lead us to Christ.  But God’s ways aren’t just arbitrary commands designed to make us practice jumping through hoops. They are also the best path to human flourishing properly understood.  Even some of the secular self-help people get it when they point out that you first have to give before you can get.

So don’t be surprised that if you decide to befriend someone in need that you think has nothing to offer you that you end up getting way more out of it than you ever thought you would.

Funny, but just yesterday I was talking to my niece, who is 24, about how lonely I was for a three-year period in my life, when I wasn’t much older than she is now. I was living in a new city, and finding it hard to make friends, and especially hard to date. My friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is older than I am, counseled me to get out of my slough of despond apartment and get involved in some kind of community activity in which I was helping other people. It would be a way to meet new people, but more importantly, it would take me outside of myself and put that anxiety of mine to work helping other people.

Of course I didn’t do it. I was too selfish and paralyzed by the sense that I had no agency in the matter, and was doomed to be a lonely bachelor forever. Looking back on it from 20 years later, I am puzzled by my actions. Why was it easier to sit at home on the weekends being miserable than it was to do something other than go to a bar, and end up feeling bad because the friends I would meet had girlfriends or boyfriends? I don’t know. There were nice people in my life, people who, if I had taken the time to spend with them, might have become good friends. But I didn’t do that, and honestly, I don’t know why. I mean, look, I had a few good friends, friends whose absence in my life I still feel over two decades later. But I was not connected with the city, not like they were. It’s hard to explain. I think it probably had mostly to do with the fact that I didn’t have a girlfriend, and didn’t know how I was going to meet one.

Anyway, I think what Aaron Renn says is true and useful. What is your experience? And, if you live in a suburb or a small town and feel lonely, what is it like for you? What would make things different, do you think? How much of this is your fault, and how much of it is the fault of the community, do you think?

(Hey, did you know that Leah Libresco Sargeant, happy New Yorker and sworn enemy of urban anomie, is coming out next year with a book called Building The Benedict Option? I cannot think of a single person better suited to writing a book like that. I just started reading the manuscript last night, and it’s terrific. I’ll be writing more about it when it’s available. Leah really is the go-to guru for how to overcome loneliness and create community. Keep up with her book news here. [3])

Related, in this issue of The Masculinist (subscribe! It’s free! [2]), Renn has some thoughts about why people who are lonely and unhappy in their city don’t take the geographical cure — that is, move somewhere else.

This is especially difficult, in my experience, for people who live in New York and Washington. There’s something about New York that convinces you that you live at the center of the universe, and that to leave New York is in some sense to give up on life. I know this; I felt it powerfully. We left New York in 2003 for Dallas for sensible reasons, but I remember driving on the freeway near downtown Dallas not long after we got there, listening to a CD with Carmen McRae singing “A New York State of Mind” [4], and bursting into tears. Sobbing, actually. I loved New York just that much, and didn’t know how I was going to get over having left it.

It turned out that leaving New York was the right thing for us to do, and it improved our lives as a growing young family in many ways. Nothing against New York — the five years we spent there were among the happiest of my life — but the problems we had come up against there (chiefly the cost of living, and the impossibility of saving money and having more kids there) were impossible to solve. I moved to New York as a newly married man, so I didn’t have to deal with the dating culture there. According to my unmarried friends, it was truly awful. To my recollection, not a single one of them would have considered for a second moving to a city where people weren’t so anxious and career-obsessed. New York was the center of the world. And it really is true: nowhere else is quite like it. But it’s all too easy to see growing old and alone in New York.

In Washington, you have the feeling that you’re doing Important Work in a Very Important Place. Nowhere else is like DC, obviously. Me, I absolutely loved it there. I laugh at young me, in 1995, having left DC for south Florida and a job I was more suited for, sitting in my apartment watching C-SPAN and missing Speaker Gingrich in the worst way. The action was there, and I was here, and woe betide me. That was perfectly silly, but boy, did I feel it. It took a while for that to work its way out of my system. Come to think of it, it’s an unhealthy kind of dependency. It’s fine and even good to love the place you live, but me, I depended on living in Washington and being a part of it for my sense of self-worth.

I was not lonely in Washington, and left for career reasons, and because I had prayed intensely about the Florida opportunity, and had clear, undeniable signs that I was supposed to go there. It was, in retrospect, the right thing to do. But turning my back on DC was really hard, for reasons that do not do me much credit, but which are pretty common, I think. It’s why Congressmen who have been in the city for years find it impossible to leave after they leave Congress. It’s not just that you have friends there. It’s that you have gone native, and can’t imagine your life outside the Imperial City, and the sense of meaning that gives you.

OK, enough. Let’s talk about community and belonging.

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36 Comments To "Loneliness In The Big City"

#1 Comment By JonF On December 12, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

I went through a bad spell in 1993-94 when I still managed to drag myself to work, but otherwise holed up inside myself, passed too much time playing Nintendo, and threw a rather epic pity party. I won’t go into what (or rather who) caused that situation– it’s water long over the dam now– but I will note that I actually needed medical intervention in the form of the drug Paxil to get through and over it. Once I wanted to start having a social life again, I started hanging out with my younger step-sister (to whom I had always been close) and her friends. I didn’t have a lot in common with those people, but many of them were good people and I never felt out of place with them. Oh, and I also got a kitten so I’d have some companionship, and some responsibility toward someone else, on a daily basis (RIP Hogan, 1994-2013). And as time went by I changed jobs, bought a house, and started going to church (I became Orthodox in early 1996). And finally, facing up to the fact that Michigan was over for me for all that there are and will always be people there I care about, I moved away and refounded my life someplace new– though the cat, and the Orthodox faith, went with me.

#2 Comment By Charlieford On December 12, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

Slightly to the side, but perhaps related: When I’ve talked with church members who are complaining that they “just aren’t getting what they need out of church,” I ask them what they are putting in? Where are they serving, volunteering, doing anything? Especially with those in their 20s, the answer is always nowhere and nothing.

This is not entirely their fault: The entire culture, including the church, shapes and forms them as consumers, and they are transitioning to adulthood–and reality–and are just discovering–if they’re fortunate–that always and only receiving is not a very satisfying way to live.

#3 Comment By Stubbs On December 12, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

“Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.”

—Saint Francis of Assisi—

#4 Comment By Sean On December 12, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

May I recommend seeking out a local Toastmasters club for those looking for a bit of belonging and growth in their lives? Becoming a better public speaker is empowering and by being a member you are helping other people in your community achieve.

#5 Comment By Ali On December 12, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

Geographically, I’ve been blessed with family members nearby. I think that has helped to curb the potential depths of loneliness that I’ve felt – but I have struggled with being a perpetually-single woman, now in my late 20s. I found this particularly challenging over the last 3 years after a failed relationship and during which I was attending 5-10 weddings each year as it seemed my entire social group got married. I now have very few friends who are also single. Many of my friends now have children. And it has been a challenge for me that the path (marriage and children, fairly early) I naively anticipated for life has not developed.

A few years ago – feeling particularly low about being one of the few single friends in a social group that was still relatively new to me, I made a conscious decision to both show up and make the invite. Invitation to something – a party, a workout class, helping someone move? Show up. Nothing going on? Cook dinner, even if its bad. Go for a walk. Organize a volunteer opportunity. Invite and don’t get anxious about who decides to show up, and don’t worry about being the single one in a group of couples. What I’ve found? People like to be invited. They like to have things to do. Couples don’t just want to hang out with each other all the time.

I still struggle with being single and what life will look like down the road. In some ways, getting out more and making more connections over the past few years has made that harder (“I’m meeting people, but why am I not meeting someone?”). But I am amazed at and so so grateful for the beautiful friendships that have developed over the past few years as a result of once (nervously) inviting a few then-acquaintances over for overcooked pasta.

#6 Comment By Brendan On December 12, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

Hmm.

I grew up in NYC (bridge and tunnel, not Manhattan), came back after grad school for a few years to work in BigLaw and then moved away for work, never lived there since (that was about 25 years ago). I don’t really miss it. I miss certain things about it that read as “homey” to me, of course — pizza by the slice, great delis and diners, etc. — but I don’t miss the rest of it. I suppose having grown up there that kind of “center of the universe” pull wasn’t there as much, it was more of a homey type pull which is more typical and perhaps easy to overcome.

I’ve lived in the DC burbclaves for about 20 years now, and it’s home. I don’t feel very connected to the imperial city aspects, though, probably because my own job is in an industry that doesn’t relate to that directly, so my role in that is more of an observer. I like the amenities here and the education level of the local population, but I don’t really have any sentimental or imperial city type ties to this place. When the time comes, I will happily move to a smaller, slower and nicer place than this.

I do reach out to others for friendship sideways and “down” at times, and it’s true what Renn says in that it can be helpful in un-obvious ways. I have never been one to get lonely easily, however, even in solitude and so I am a bad example, probably.

#7 Comment By Liam On December 12, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

Yes.

With a caveat that you really have to be careful about rationalizing egoistic behavior in developing relationships. Easier to do when you’re older and have had more experience with your own habits in that regard.

One can be lonely in smaller communities too. The big city is not the issue.

Most importantly, learn that, at a certain point in life, it becomes harder to make friends within one’s age cohort because people become so mired in
the burdens of midlife (not just career and parenting, but also things like eldercare and one’s own array of illnesses) and learning how to be serene in solitude is an absolutely vital discipline. Hint: It does offer opportunities for random-provoked prayer for strangers and other people, and for random acts of kindness that involve no ego gratification.

A good mystery of the Rosary to contemplate is the Crowning of Our Lord with Thorns (there are a couple of relevant masterpieces by Fra Angelico that merit contemplation): here is the King of the Universe, being mocked as a fake king – his whole mission, purpose, call and being is being mocked. He came to us to give to us, yet we refused his gift. Do you know what it feels like to have something of value to give, and it is not wanted, perhaps even unwantable? (Does that help you understand what a grace it is to have the opportunity to give something good that is wanted and wantable?) When we feel that, we have an opportunity to be in solidarity not only with our Lord, but with countless other souls who share that experience. And we can offer that back to the Lord for all the intentions of his Most Sacred Heart.

That’s just my approach. It’s both traditional and progressive. I try to make it not about me, because in the end, it’s not. I don’t always succeed, of course. Let us pray for one another.

#8 Comment By Hal On December 12, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

I see the same question asked in a slightly different way in the form of those articles in the vein of “Why is it so hard to make friends after 30?”

I see exactly how it happens. When you’re a student, you’re surrounded by people in similar life positions with at least circumstantially shared interests (i.e. class, social circles, etc.) When you get out into the working world, you may not be the same age as many of your coworkers. You could be the only single person there. You might have few, if any, shared interests. Being vulnerable with any of them is risky, especially if you’re competing for promotions with those same people.

Most importantly, to my mind, is that by the time you’re an adult, you’ve probably figured out how to fill your time very effectively. These days, however, we’ve mastered the art of doing so alone: Television, video games, the internet, on and on. Without hobbies or interests that would actually take us out of the house and widen our social circles, meeting people and making friends can seem very intimidating, even impossible.

I don’t say this blithely. I moved to Baltimore in 2007 for graduate school, and I spent most of my time outside of school playing World of Warcraft. A profoundly poor use of my time, in retrospect, but, I kept telling myself, what else what was I supposed to do? I lived in a city where I knew no one and had no friends, right?

Finally joining a church and starting some social hobbies made a world of a difference.

#9 Comment By Bob Taylor On December 12, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

Women will always be better at this than men.

In recent years, I’ve considered men of my father’s generation, and how many of them I was acquainted whom I eventually realized probably didn’t have a single true friend. And this was a generation for whom clubbiness and general bonhomie were standard.

I know that C.S. Lewis, as a young man, thought it more likely that he would find true love than a true friendship.

And I think that so much of it is “luck,” as we would term it. John Lennon used to say in all seriousness that if it had not been for the Beatles, he would have wound up in prison.

#10 Comment By Ted S On December 12, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

I had a very similar experience following college about 12 years ago. I moved back to my small town in Pennsylvania.
Although I had a good job, most of my friends moved away to big cities (Washington, New York, and Philadelphia). The friends who did live at home usually had significant others, and I felt like an oddball because I didn’t and didn’t know how to meet anyone. I personally really felt like all the action took place in those cities, like just on television, I could walk down a street in one of those places and meet a gorgeous, smart, girl the kind who would’ve fled my small town.
The only place I thought you could meet someone was at a bar (and since my friends were away or with others if I would be going to a bar I’d usually be rolling solo).
Older people often suggested meeting girls at church, but that seemed like an impossible idea. Although I went regularly, it seemed ridiculous to me to go up to a girl after mass, receiving communion, and then try to talk to her with the goal of getting a number or a date. I REALLY think churches could do a great service in having some kind of a social event to bring together single persons of faith (I know that sounds like the result could be tacky). As someone who takes their faith seriously, finding a girl who was not only Catholic but also serious about her faith was important to me, but it seemed like wishful thinking. Churches that did provide some kind of a social event would be able not only to find potential partners for members but increase the odds that resulting couples would remain in the Church and thusly increase the odds that any children those couples might ultimately have would be raised in the faith. Again this would not be an easy task, but done right could be very helpful to all parties, I believe this especially after reading mark Regnerus’ op-ed in the Washington Post which you blogged about.
Nevertheless, I was lonely and depressed about being so. I DID believe my situation was in large part a result of my living NOT. In a big city but instead a small town!
Oddly enough I did meet a woman (now my wife and mother to our three children), she is a serious catholic and we met in a bar (the Lord has a sense of humor)! I usually chalk that time up to a growing pain something that is not that uncommon. So I really don’t think place (in this regard) ultimately mattered that much.

#11 Comment By Joe On December 12, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

I’m an introverted person who enjoys being around people, and moving to the city has made me a much less lonely person. I think whether you’re lonely in a city depends on the kind of interactions you’re comfortable with. I’m bimodal – I like a few deep interactions with close family and friends, and frequent but finite (though not meaningless!) interactions with everyone else. I tend to feel lonely when I’m not interacting with anyone, but I feel constricted and out of control when I’m part of a “friend gang”. In the suburb, the only two types of people were those who I was expected to be around all the time (church, work) and those who I would never interact with; there was no middle ground, as everything was intentional. Jane Jacobs has a great section in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” where she discusses the intentionality of suburban life and the accidental joys of city life. In the city, I can just be a little piece of a wonderful machine. Being a meaningful part of someone’s life doesn’t have to mean being friends, and curing loneliness doesn’t necessarily mean having them.

#12 Comment By John Peter Presson On December 12, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

This generation is more “connected”but seems lonelier. I remember as a young man,after a fiercely heartrending breakup back in the 80s being shepherded over to the table of a group of men that met nightly for conversation and fellowship. Nothing seemingly more than that bound them. From that point until I moved, I met with them nearly nightly. I recall similar “coffee klatches” from my younger days. So rarely does one see that nowadays.

#13 Comment By Stephen On December 12, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

I was talking to my childhood best friend recently who’s just finished his first semester in seminary (we’re mid-20’s for reference). We were getting a beer and ended up talking a lot about loneliness. Before leaving for seminary he had spent three years in our home city and felt that they were the loneliest of his life. Part of it was unlucky, as is his roommates were all busy, part of it was the fact that his work often sucked up a lot of his time, and part of it he felt was that people weren’t particularly forthright in reaching out to him.

There’s a lot of shades and nuance to the story but I’ve really struggled with the last part, because for him he doesn’t feel like he was being included and Christians should be inclusive. I fully think as Christians we shouldn’t be exclusionary, but it’s also hard to be actively inclusive of everyone all the time–partially because sometimes you just want to spend time with certain folks and other times you just forget about including people who you aren’t consistently spending time with and aren’t top of mind. And while I think I can do a better job of reaching out, I think in a lot of cases loneliness is self-inflicted to a large extent. No one should be deliberately excluded, but if you aren’t being included it’s because you don’t have a a notable presence in others’ lives.

I’ve also been paying attention to lately how new folks join a church small group that I’m a part of. The people that usually stick around are the ones that end up casting themselves wholly into the group’s activities, whereas others who are less participatory end up dropping out often because they don’t feel connected. And while I sympathize, it’s just frustrating to me to see people complain about loneliness when they take no agency in actively involving themselves in the lives of others. The trickier issues have been when people try to join that don’t mesh with the personality of the group. We welcome everyone, but sometimes folks just aren’t going to connect.

This issue of loneliness is most notable among young men and I know there’s a whole host of reasons, especially including the church. One issue that I’ve found to be most prevalent for guys I’ve talked to is the lack of mentors. My roommate recently went on a men’s hike and was one of the few guys under 30 there, but felt the trip was more a time to celebrate the elders rather than also looking at ways to raise up the younger men. I may be contradicting myself here, but in these instances I feel like there is an imperative for older folks to be more actively involved in the lives of the younger people in the church. I’ve never had a true mentor and don’t know if I will, but knowing that it’s something I crave, I’ve challenged myself to work with youth in the church and hopefully it’s something that we can do better with in the next generation.

I found Jared Wilson’s article to be especially poignant on this matter: [5]

#14 Comment By Jonathan Davis On December 12, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

When I graduated college, I moved back to my home city. All of my friends who moved back were newly married, and the rest were scattered like the wind.

I was single, and working a temporary job, unsure of how I would get full time work. I had no friends that I saw regularly. But I wasn’t lonely.

1. I lived with my parents at the time, and my entire family lived in the area.
2. I joined a different parish from my parents (one of the benefits of Catholicism), and got involved in the young adult community. I still am. Over the years I have made many new friends in my old home.

More and more, I really believe that most people should try to live where they grew up if you don’t have a really really good reason for leaving. That is how communities are formed and sustained. That is how you fight the loneliness of liquid modernity.

Cathedrals used to take 100 years to be built. There was an understanding that you were investing in the future, not just *your* future. This attitude really isn’t possible when you adopt the modernist mindset of the always changing world. My diocese recently put up a giant drywall cathedral in three years, massive and built to imitate churches of old. But it is not one. It can’t be in the “need it now” world. I would have donated thousands and delayed decades (even my lifetime) for a chance to say hey that magnificent building came from “my” community. My parish. My world. And I believe there is a larger metaphor there.

#15 Comment By AnnaH On December 12, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

[6]

BTW, I think about Mother Theresa’s words a lot these days about loneliness being the single biggest problem of our modern world.

#16 Comment By Kristen On December 12, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

Sometimes there’s just something in the water. I was in one church community for several years and just wasn’t having any luck making personal connections. Forget about anyone ever inviting me to something and when I took the initiative to issue invitations I’d get about a 10% acceptance rate. Everyone was always too busy. Eventually I stopped asking. (I heard from sources I consider reliable that a lot of other people had similar reports, which seemed confusing to all concerned. How does this not end up balancing out somehow? But it didn’t seem to.) I figured this is just what adulthood is like. Eventually I switched to a different church (for other reasons) and the world was so different. Sometimes life happens of course but there wasn’t the general expectation that any plans are tentative until the last minute because something better might come up. There is a lot more mutual give and take. Sociologically I am at a loss to explain the difference between the two communities. But it’s a relief to know things can be better than the first one was.

#17 Comment By Observer On December 12, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

“Nothing against New York — the five years we spent there were among the happiest of my life — but the problems we had come up against there (chiefly the cost of living, and the impossibility of saving money and having more kids there) were impossible to solve.”

I’ve lived in the Silicon Valley for ten years, and it is time to relocate, for similar reasons. My house is too damn small, and there is no way to get a bigger one here (average in most places here is well over a million). Unfortunately, I’m in education, and it is difficult to land a job elsewhere because most districts don’t want to look to people outside their geographical areas. It is also difficult because the families of both me and my wife live nearby. It is hard when we hit those times when we need to make major changes.

#18 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On December 12, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

A New Yorker all of my life, I have never seen the city as the center of the universe (but then again I was a teenager here during the 1970’s).

For me, the city is a series of interconnected provincial hamlets which often have little to do with one another. You can take a short subway ride from where I live in Park Slope in Brooklyn and be in a neighborhood that feels completely different, many of whose residents probably go into Manhattan less frequently than people who live in the suburbs. I do find that many people who are not from NYC often equate Manhattan with NYC and do not spend a lot of time in the other boroughs.

I have found the best way not to be lonely is to volunteer and be involved, and New York City offers thousands of opportunities to do just that. I do witness that people sometimes engage in these efforts in order to make friends or find a partner, and I think this is a mistake. In my church, I saw many people fall away (especially younger ones) since they had joined both for spiritual reasons and also to partner hunt.

I would tell them that I was part of the church in order to be part of something larger than myself that was devoted to doing good work (as I understood it) in the community. If I made a friend or found a partner that was a wonderful byproduct, but neither outcome had been my intention. I tend to be this way in most arenas of my life. I engage in an activity because I believe it is the proper/mindful way to spend that portion of my life. Too often in our society we are mere consumers of experience, doing things in order to amass friends, partners, amusing anecdotes/pictures to share on Facebook, etc.

#19 Comment By dawson jackson On December 12, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

I’ve lived in Shanghai (and other “unknown” Chinese cities of over 5 million) having spent nearly ten years in China, I’ve lived in Kiev, Prague, Vienna, Warsaw, Seoul…I mean for long periods and have spent considerable time in most American cities such as LA, Chicago, Miami, NYC (tho really only NY is a city) and have never felt lonely. In fact, I have found I’ve had to hide from people! I’m not a bubbly personality, far from it, but I don’t understand 3 things; racism, boredom, loneliness.

#20 Comment By John Farrier On December 12, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

Making connections has always been difficult for me. When I encounter similar people wondering how to make friends as adults, I will always sing the praises of tabletop role-playing games.

I got back into the hobby a year and a half ago after a 12-year absence. It’s been wonderful.

Tabletop role-playing is the most social of all hobbies. It simply can’t be done alone and the activity consists entirely of people talking to each other.

I found a group through Meetup.com. It’s also common for comic book and gaming stores to have a digital or physical bulletin board for finding players or groups.

#21 Comment By dawson jackson On December 12, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

I was not bragging earlier. I understand I am blessed and weird. But see Thomas Wolfe on loneliness… [7]. Outside of the city I find myself profoundly lonely.

#22 Comment By BlueTickCoonHound On December 12, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

I am, however, lonely here, on brother Dreher’s own “blog”…as if I am some sort of Keaton Jones of the “cool christians”. (earlier comments not approved)

#23 Comment By Rose On December 12, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

I wish I had sought community when I was a freshman in college. Looking back it might have changed the trajectory of my life.

While I was very thankful for the youth group experience of my early teens, I think that older me was wary of the rigidity that I had known in my Baptist upbringing. I just wanted to get away from that. I do suspect I might have gravitated toward something like Intervarsity had it existed on my campus (and for all I know, it might have. I honestly don’t know).
We are often told as adults, especially if we are single, to not “cheapen” ourselves by pursuing relationships too hard. I like the counterintuitiveness of Renn’s advice (with the stipulation about unhealthy relationships). I do feel like seeking this kind of relationship is the mark of a mature Christian. And I might add, because of my years of lapse, because I am a single parent, that I might be more likely to be the target of a “step-down” friendship, and I am okay with that. In fact, I might be the kind of person who needs to be pursued in order to be a friend.

#24 Comment By Seven Sleepers On December 12, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

Well, again, I live outside NYC near a super gigantic community of Orthodox Jews. I envy them. I really do. Oh so many people despise them. But, its hard to argue with their family cohesion, and the centrality their dedication to their religion costs them. I still believe that a BO has to end up learning from these people, if it is to be viable.

Sorry for the long post that no one will read but this is my biggest issue; not just for myself, but because you see so many lonely and hurting people. I cant see how they are consoled in a Catholic church, where you are basically a number. I really hope people start to understand that NO greater issue exists in America other than making the Christian Community an *Actual* Community. That is really the most essential thing of all. It is, to be frank, the very opposite of some tendencies in all denominations. It doesn’t matter how strict you follow the bible, nor how elaborate and ancient your liturgy is, if you don’t have an actual community, you don’t have anything. You wont be able to win converts bc you will have a gnawing idea that they have nowhere to go. I cant imagine just saying, “yeah, just stay home and read your bible forever”.

Yes, I always suffer from loneliness, despite having no “valid” reason for it. I think that we yearn for spiritual friendship, or I do, but the culture does not make it easy. Not that it is the cultures fault, because it is really the fault of the Church, and mostly the hierarchy, (if you have a hierarchy).

The Jews have their synagogue. And Muslims have their mosques. But Christians, at least the denominations that I know, don’t *have* a Church in the same way. In those religions, you simply go to the place, in your free time (if you are religious I mean). You go and lo and behold, the serious people are also there. And you chat, and you form an actual identity around the religion and its ideas.

Now, some Christians have something like this, in pockets. But it is hit or miss, it is the exception not the rile. Mostly, we have a building that you go to for scheduled, very scheduled, activities, which is locked or would be super weird if you show up at, at any other time. Our churches are not a place to go to just pray, hang out, and be. Just be. Outside your house, and outside your head.

This is what the Temple was. This is why the Apostles “went up” to the temple, endlessly. It was the main social foci for religious people. It had all the venues for formal and informal relations, just like Synagogues do now. One part liturgical, one part study, one part social services and one part hang out space and social hall. Yes, coffee hour is great but it is not really sufficient, at all.

As I said, it is practice now for Churches to lock their doors, and I cant say I blame them. But, in the absence of good, clean assembly options, nothing beats a place that has been designated by the community as *the* place to go, to simply be around your kind. That is what the others have. And that is what a bar is. Unlike a Church, it IS open. And you WILL find people to talk to. That’s why bars so popular in our society.

You should be able to get up after dinner and drive (or walk) over to the Church and just hang out. Like a synagogue, there should be a well stocked library, a place for donated goods, and a place to just argue, debate, sit, think, meditate, pray or just be.

I just think you need a place for Christians not to be saving the world or helping the homeless or being superheroes. But an intentional *private* place (meaning non-commercial) to simply thicken the bonds and serve as a home base.

I hear Evangelical “campuses” do this kind of thing. Wonder what the pluses and minuses are for those who have experienced them…

But, yeah, a place you go on Sunday to hear a liturgical ceremony, followed by a handshake of the priest and then back to your life is exactly why so many Catholics/Orthodox are losing their religion. It needs to be more than that, and there needs to be a “campus” that fulfills that purpose. But when people are in a hierarchy, it falls to the hierarchy to initiate these things. Sometimes I think its a deadly scenario: the hierarchy is always waiting on the laypeople to be and do more, and the laypeople are thinking the same. The onus is on the one who “has the keys”, literally and figuratively. I sometimes ask myself, what the heck are these Bishops doing with their time?? Where are they? Why are they not in the news everyday? Or every week? Why do they keep such low profiles? There is so much work to be done…

In Catholic tradition, the Dominican Oratory is a kind of example. Its a place to go to meet educated people in the faith and discuss things. I hear they are making a comeback. Like this one.

[8]

Ultimately, bishops and priests need to understand that they hold the keys to the Church and they need to be driving more interaction. What were the Apostles if not legendary community organizers. People, especially men, need to have an excuse to congregate, to make it seem like it is not out of their own loneliness. The clergy should know this, and do more to thicken the ranks.

Well, I could go on and on. I dont think any other issue ranks higher than this.

#25 Comment By Pat On December 12, 2017 @ 7:35 pm

When I got my job, fresh out of grad school, I was dismayed when 5 pm came and everybody disappeared. Of course they all had families to go home to, while I didn’t. Add me to the people noticing that it is almost impossible to make friends with folks who are already well established in their own lives.

I’ve been lucky enough to have some close friends at work, and like everyone I work with well enough. But it takes a lot of work to create a social circle. I’m in three, and am pretty sure only one of them would keep going if I left it.

People who say you can find friends by volunteering at church are talking BS, in my opinion. There are a lot of good things to be gained by being active in your church, but friends – the actual kind you see outside of church – are rarely among them. I remember one church where we got so desperate that we talked the coffee shop across the street into giving us coupons, which we handed out to the congregation to get them to meet each other for coffee outside of church hours. I don’t remember a single meeting actually taking place.

You know who *does* have effective social circles in my city? The LGBT community. I have a lot of acquaintances among that group and have been really impressed by the amount of activity, friendship and socializing, and the way people keep older and less mobile members involved, even when it requires traveling quite a distance to pick them up and take them places.

I’m jealous. When I’m in some nursing home on the outskirts of town, I will wish I’d cultivated relationships with more lesbians and fewer christians.

#26 Comment By Boz On December 12, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

There’s a lot to be said for simply getting involved, but I think contemporary life puts some limits on the results you can expect.

I live on the East Coast and have a federal job but despite all the stereotypes about how easy they have it, it’s been pretty hard to establish a normal 9-5 that would allow any sort of regular volunteer work. In the past several years, my life has been shaken like an Etch-a-Sketch — hours requiring me to wake up in the middle of the night, extended periods out of the country, work location switch adding 1.5 hours each way to my commute. I don’t think my situation is necessarily unusual.

Plus, volunteering in the Catholic Church is pretty bureaucratic these days. I’m in the midst of a stable spell and started looking into opportunities at the local parish and, basically, they have a few niche openings with hours in the middle of the week. I Realized they’re looking for retirees.

I was talking with somebody about a mutual acquaintance, an aggressively boring tax attorney, who is a relentless socializer (usually a young conservative, young Catholic, young professional event every night of the week, but no results after years) and we both kind of agreed that it’s better to take life as it comes, develop some hobbies and be grateful for what you do have. Some of this is just serendipity and can’t be forced. The real challenge is staying alert and not getting discouraged.

#27 Comment By Jonah R. On December 12, 2017 @ 8:22 pm

One important reminder about community involvement and volunteer work: if you have a special skill or area of expertise, your local church or charity or activist nonprofit (whatever its political stripe) probably needs you. Your soup kitchen or hospice or library or church doesn’t just need people to come in and do menial or feel-good work a couple hours a month. Many of them need volunteers who can do IT and database work or who have expertise in just about anything else: finance, electrical and HVAC repair, government contract writing, secretarial skills, the list is endless. What you once considered “networking down” will fill your life with significance and humility.

#28 Comment By hogtowner On December 12, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

Renn seems like a truly thoughtful man who combines compassion with a call to personal responsibility. His advice: to be a friend, to offer oneself, is what my elders told me when I was a bored, lonely surly teenager. And overall it makes sense.

But it’s missing something. There seems to be an inevitability to being lonely in the current era: an inevitability that is compounded by the addictive, attention-snapping quality of electronic media. It takes time and attention to form relationships; and that is subverted by the media. This inevitability is also compounded in my case by the advance of middle age, certain factors of personality, and the results of choices I’ve made. I don’t want to overemphasize my situation: I have close and dear friends and a sort of community (not living together but two or several of us coming together reasonably frequently and talking about real things). But it is extremely easy to imagine myself falling into a spiral of isolation and decline. The point is, that no one can escape loneliness in the human condition and especially now. Attempts to do so could be part of the problem.

Renn touches on that briefly in the quote when he says to stop looking for improved status and simply reach out to someone who’s “lower” than you. A lot of socializing is actually about trying to get in with the successful crowd. And I think that this is 1)helping to drive our polarization and tribalism; and 2) a call to the importance of solitude, even its vital necessity.

Thomas Merton talks about the relationship of solitude with totalitarianism: about how the former counteracts the latter with true spiritual force:

“… He learns to think for himself, guided no longer by the dictates of need and by the systems and processes designed to create artificial needs and then “satisfy” them.

“This emancipation can take two forms: first that of the active life, which liberates itself from enslavement to necessity by considering and serving the needs of others, without thought of personal interest or return. And second, the contemplative life, which must not be construed as an escape from time and matter, from social responsibility and from the life of sense, but rather, as an advance into solitude and the desert, a confrontation with poverty and the void, a renunciation of the empirical self, in the presence of death, and nothingness, in order to overcome the ignorance and error that spring from the fear of ‘being nothing.’ The man who dares to be alone can come to see that the ’emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth.

It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory. When this is faced, then anguish is not necessarily overcome, but it can be accepted and understood. Thus, in the heart of anguish are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the contemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man. The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.

It is in this sense that the hermit, according to Philoxenos, imitates Christ. For in Christ, God takes to Himself the solitude and dereliction of man: every man. From the moment Christ went out into the desert to be tempted, the loneliness, the temptation and the hunger of every man became the loneliness, temptation and hunger of Christ”.

Merton goes on to describe how the eremitical dimension of life, like the Ben Op, is not about turning back on life and society at all, but is the basis for conversion and unity:

” The love of solitude is sometimes condemned as “hatred of our fellow men.” But is this true? If we push our analysis of collective thinking a little further we will find that the dialectic of power and need, of submission and satisfaction, ends by being a dialectic of hate. Collectivity needs not only to absorb everyone it can, but also implicitly to hate and destroy whoever cannot be absorbed. Paradoxically, one of the needs of collectivity is to reject certain classes, or races, or groups, in order to strengthen its own self-awareness by hating them instead of absorbing them.

Thus the solitary cannot survive unless he is capable of loving everyone, without concern for the fact that he is likely to be regarded by all of them as a traitor. Only the man who has fully attained his own spiritual identity can live without the need to kill, and without the need of a doctrine that permits him to do so with a good conscience. There will always be a place, says [the playwright] Ionesco, ‘for those isolated consciences who have stood up for the universal conscience’ as against the mass mind. But their place is solitude. They have no other. Hence it is the solitary person (whether in the city or in the desert) who does mankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its true capacity for maturity, liberty and peace”.

As Rod says, read the whole thing – it’s really good ( [9]).

#29 Comment By KyleW On December 12, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

Any suggestions for looking for those kind of community-building opportunities in Philadelphia? As I’ve mentioned on here before, this is my first semester in grad-school here, and I think I’m experiencing some of the same things Rod was during his “isolated in the city” period. I probably contribute to this to a significant extent, but it’s difficult to find meaningful connections at work when 95% of even the best-intentioned people think about religious and social conservatives like they’re from Mars. My church (LCMS) is wonderful, but a function of being a very young, high sacramental Protestant church plant (only been around about a year,) is that we’re quite, quite small. Meanwhile, old college friends in the area whom I do know, and who share a lot of my most important values, mostly live in suburbs or neighboring towns. Several of them are also couples with infants and toddlers, which makes coming into the city an even bigger challenge. When I got here, my goal was to practice hospitality by starting a book club, if we were fortunate I was visualizing it as one basis for our own little Ben-Op community. But a 45-minute commute into University City is more fatal to those kinds of ambitions than I realized. Plans fizzled because the logistics were just too unreliable. Now I’m feeling a bit stuck. I get Renn’s point about reaching out to the freindless, but something at the level of undertaking the Ben Op together is hard without a broader basis than that in shared values.

#30 Comment By Jen On December 12, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

My perspective as a middle-aged single woman living a large city:

I volunteer regularly, for local charities and in political campaigns. I’ve joined many clubs and Meetup groups (hiking, boating, movies, lectures, music, etc). It is actually quite easy to make friends and meet like-minded people if you just get off your duff.

But the only people I meet in these endeavors are elderly people or other single women. Where are the men? Maybe they’re doing hard-core adventure sports, or at home playing video games or watching porn. I have no idea.

I guarantee you that there are many, many single-and-looking women who are out there contributing to their community and living vibrant lives (as opposed to your beloved cat-lady meme), but the men just aren’t out there. What is it that keeps men from engaging in easily accessible social groups?

#31 Comment By ecapitol On December 12, 2017 @ 10:37 pm

There is a saying in DC, perhaps you’ve heard it too – that if you stay there more than 4 years you’ll return, because you’ve gone native. I lived there for nearly 7 years, and while I left for reasons similar to why you left New York, I know that I went native. It wasn’t the allure of doing important things; I worked at a non-government related company and didn’t do important things.
I think in DC there are so many different ways to belong as a young person; in vibrant Catholic and conservative Protestant communities, in one of many close-knit political worlds, or just in a neighborhood like the Hill, and the close proximity of everything means you run into people you know all the time. Whenever I go back I run into so many people that it’s like I was never away.
Here in my Southern city, I often find it hard to connect with people as my experiences are usually pretty disparate from other youngish religious women, and urban sprawl reduces what community there is even more. Hate to say it, but I often want to move back to the swamp.

[NFR: I miss living in a city where you can walk everywhere you need to go. Or anywhere at all. — RD]

#32 Comment By Pat On December 13, 2017 @ 9:44 am

hogtowner, thanks for posting that Merton link. It was exactly what I was looking for!

#33 Comment By Chris Williams On December 13, 2017 @ 11:28 am

I had periods like this (feeling more aimless, with friendships fleeting) in NYC, where I still live.

It came about by accident, but one of the best things I’ve done in a long time was get a road bike and get involved in the cycling club.

I’m with friends nearly every weekend (weather permitting) spending a lot of non-distracted, non-inebriated time with interesting, active people.

The bike club broke the pattern of social interaction that revolves around bars, dating, or work. I mixed up my social circle by age and career in a away that is not typical in NY. It also got me out of the city, far from digital technology, in rolling hills among Hudson Valley farms – always to end the bar for a beer or two at some local spot (btw, easy access to the beaches on Rockaway or Long Island, and the beauty of the Hudson Valley is an underrated part of NYC).

#34 Comment By JonF On December 13, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

Re: As I said, it is practice now for Churches to lock their doors, and I cant say I blame them.

Not all churches do that. I’ve stopped in cathedrals and shrines on my various trips here and there. In Oklahoma City the Roman Catholic church across from the bombing memorial is open during the day; I stopped in there to pray after visiting the memorial in 2009. And right here in Baltimore, crime and violence notwithstanding, the Shrine of St Jude is open during the day. However it’s generally true that such places are not open as sites for socializing, but rather for tourism and for religious devotion.

#35 Comment By Json On December 16, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

It happens in all big cities, I think. I’m in the Los Angeles area, and I am 30+ and single. It’s hard even though there are alot of other singles. I didn’t get baptized until I was 18, and then headed off to college 60 miles away. There was a rare “Baptist Student Union” building on campus that I never plugged into. The pastor from my hometown never thought to make a phone call and introductions. I don’t know why I didn’t take the initiative myself. I guess everything was just too new to me (college, new faith, new town, etc.) that I just struggled to adjust.

Anyway, just a few days ago, I was talking about my struggle with singleness and loneliness with another Christian man who is much older than I am and has several kids, most of whom are already out of the house. He called the cause of it “Acute Individualistic Disorder Syndrome” (AIDS), which is a plague in our American society and explains why my pastor didn’t bother to make the connection for me.

#36 Comment By Jessica On December 28, 2017 @ 10:52 am

I found my first few years out of college, living in Charlotte, NC to be some of the loneliest I’ve had. I suppose Charlotte is a “big city” but certainly not in the sense that NYC and DC are. My degree was in music teaching and it was hard going from a life surrounded by young people who lived and breathed classical or jazz music, to working mostly with people older than me who had families and knowing almost nobody who had any interest in classical music. I always had a few close friends and relatives who lived in town which was nice, but I hated not having a broader social circle. For example, when I bought my townhome I thought about throwing a house warming party but realized I didn’t really know enough people to have one!

I’m in my fourth year now and have found two larger groups to be a part of that have been really rewarding. One is a fitness class that meets at a local brewery, everyone works out and then hangs out afterwards. The other is the young adult group at a local Catholic church. I am considering converting, and have met some really great people through both the young adult group and RCIA. I have to say so far at least,the fitness group has translated to more people I hang out with on weekends etc. while I only see the folks from church at church events.

Looking back on it, there were some good things that came from feeling isolated. I think I came out of college with an obsessive work ethic, and really had trouble carrying on conversations that weren’t about music or deep topics like politics or philosophy. The past few years has forced me to interact more with people who are different than me. I have had difficulty dating this whole time (the banking bros of Charlotte are not my type), but I think if I had been in a relationship it would likely be with someone who wasn’t religious which may have made my so far deeply moving change toward Catholicism far more unlikely. I’m more comfortable being by myself when I need to be, this past summer I went backpacking through Europe for three weeks by myself, something I would not have had the courage to do three years ago.