Creating islands of community in a sea of loneliness

In the book The Martian (which the movie is based on), an astronaut is accidentally left on Mars during a storm when the rest of the crew believes he is dead. He survives all kinds of physical challenges to staying alive on an inhospitable planet, but beyond the physical challenges is the emotional challenge of isolation.

So, at one point in the story, he puts himself in significant danger in order to make the possibility of communication with people on earth a reality. As brilliant as he is, he simply can’t stay alive without human contact.

The book and movie highlight this basic human need we have for one another. We simply can’t get away from it.

We need one another. We were created for community.

Not all creatures were made this way. But we humans are.

There’s something central to who we are as human beings that requires community and even cries out for it. But at the same time, there’s something in us that causes us to struggle with community.

In an article entitled “The Loneliness of American Society,” The American Spectator noted:

[A recent study by] sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

Loneliness is epidemic.

The Bible starts out with a big bang [joke]. God creating left and right. And after each day, we have this confirmation that what he has made is good. All together it is very good. But then we get to chapter 2 and we come across something not good.

“It was not good for the man to be alone.”

Loneliness is the first “not good” thing in the Bible. The destruction launched by the serpent in Genesis 3 only works on that theme, isolating us from God, husband from wife, humans from creation, brother from brother, women from men, and nation from nation — if we keep going through to Genesis 11.

It’s only after we’ve seen the breakdown in all of the dimensions of human community that we get to Genesis 12, with God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation started with a man and his wife and their crazy, broken family.

We were created for community. For we humans were created in the image of God — God who is Trinity, who is himself community.

But as The American Spectator and many others have noted, our lack of community is only growing as loneliness takes over our culture. We are starving for the community we were created to enjoy.

I’ve written about how the use of social media stunts out experience of community. But it’s not the only culprit.

Our cars keep us from walking or riding bikes in our neighborhoods, keeping us from getting to know anyone beyond our immediate neighbors. This is why I’m grateful that our mail is delivered to a large community mailbox at the far end of our street instead of to our houses, forcing us to walk the block several times a week. Without that, none of us would.

The designs of our houses have changed over the years, moving us from front yard porches to privacy fenced backyards. This is why we took out some landscaping in front of our house and put in a patio with tables and chairs that I work at.

Phones, email, and texting have reduced much of what would have been personal conversations to the sharing of information and getting people to do things for us. So few of our interactions over our devices are purely personal. Most of the time, we use them because we want something.

Of course there are our television sets. Sure, my family likes to watch a show together every now and then, but we’re all passively facing the tube and not each other. And sadly it has replaced much of our game-playing and book-reading times together.

And then there is our recorded music on radios and stereos and phones. Not only do headphones isolate us, but the replacement of live music played by family members has almost died because of the professional perfection of recorded music. I’m so grateful for my boys who play the piano and drums and play them well, making music a family event and not just background noise.

Cars, phones, computers, TVs, recorded music, the internet — each of these is powerful and useful and I won’t be giving any of them up. They are fixtures in our lives that we are attached to but which we need to make sure won’t keep us isolated from one another.

So, what do we do? How do we end the isolation?

It’s not easy. As I’ve mentioned above, the conditions we live in and the way those conditions have affected each of us living among them make this difficult to remedy.

What we need to do is create islands of community within this vast sea of loneliness that threatens to sink us.

Again, this isn’t easy.

A friend recently mentioned how he and his wife had hosted a number of BBQs over the past summer, requiring nothing of anyone who came and opening them up to all. Lots of people enjoyed their hospitality, but none has reciprocated. None has done more than a Facebook thanks or Like click.

He was discouraged by the response, but I’m urging him to not give up. What he and his wife were doing was creating an island that castaways can swim to and discover community at, something they’re not experiencing anywhere else.

It needs to be a part of our expectation that others won’t be good at this. We need to assume that people are floundering.

That may seem harsh. But it’s the reality.

Most people are lonely and don’t know what to do about it. If they did, they wouldn’t be lonely, right?

We need to assume that beneath the put-together exterior we each put up is an empty heart. We need to assume that people are longing for the community we can offer to them, but we also need to assume that they don’t know how to ask for it or how to reciprocate it.

We need to take these words of Jesus to heart:

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)

Now, Jesus was speaking to people living in a time before all of the technological interferences I listed above. Instead of tech, they had social and economic categories to overcome. We still have a few of those barriers, but most of our barriers are either ethnic/racial or tech-created. Jesus would have us overcome them through dinners and parties.

Now, some of us do the hosting thing more easily and with greater attention to detail than others of us. My wife is among the better ones. I’m not. But that doesn’t let me off the hook.

So, I host pub nights with other guys. If it were up to them to do the inviting, nothing would happen. But that’s OK. I’m fine with being the one to arrange them.

And, really, that’s what we have to do. We have to shoulder the responsibility for making community happen. No one else will. And when they come, they’ll take and not give. They’ll enjoy and not thank. Not everyone, but many will. And that has to be OK. These are castaways, shipwrecks who need an island to simply wash up on.

How you create your island of community for others to take part in is totally up to you and what you like to do — summer BBQs, Monday Night Football parties, block parties, pub nights, game nights, sports teams, hunting trips, scrapbooking nights, book groups, open camping trips, a huge pot of soup and random invitations, whatever. Go!