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Loneliness In The Big City

How do you fight it? What about the geographical cure?
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The new issue of Aaron Renn’s newsletter The Masculinist is out (you can subscribe for free here). 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.)

Related, in this issue of The Masculinist (subscribe! It’s free!), 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”, 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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