What would you do if you needed $400 because of an emergency that happened today?
In 2015, the Federal Reserve surveyed a broad cross-section of Americans about what they would do if they needed to come up with 400 dollars in an emergency. Nearly half of the people surveyed indicated that they would struggle getting the money together – and would likely need to borrow the money, rather than having it gifted to them by loved ones.
Pundits reflected on these stark figures as evidence of economic hardship for so many American households. Indeed it is. But it also is evidence of isolation. People no longer have strong networks of friends and family members to call on.
And, putting it bluntly, what emergency ever costs just $400 these days? You can’t repair most broken hot water heaters for it, much less covering the costs of repairing a broken heating system during the winter or copay for a hospital bill.
Not only are people suffering financially, but the bonds of social connection have frayed so much that people do not think they can rely on them in an emergency. Approximately fifteen percent of those surveyed doubted that they could pay the bill at all – even with the help of all of their friends, family, and wider circles of community.
A large and growing number of Americans do not have enough people to call in case of emergency – much less people with whom to get a cup of coffee and talk about life, kick back with in times of stress, or celebrate with at the moments of joy that make life so worthwhile. People feel very much alone.
Even more direct evidence of loneliness is building in the social sciences. Nearly 40 percent of American adults say that they are lonely. This is double the reported rate of loneliness thirty years ago. To me as a rabbi, that means that 40 percent of Americans are in pain on a daily basis for social reasons alone.
Companies are becoming increasingly aware of this phenomenon. Some have begun studying whether workplace environments need more social supports in order to help employees who spend much time alone in their personal lives. Some business experts have begun considering the possibility that loneliness outside of the workplace keeps employees from realizing their potential professionally, as well.
Most sobering is the growing body of research that suggests tangible, physical consequences to social isolation. Even the subjective feeling of loneliness is now strongly correlated with negative health outcomes and premature death.
This week, we begin the cycle of Jewish Torah readings anew and delve into the story of the creation of the world in the book of Genesis. Rabbi Marc Katz teaches that God identifies most of what exists in the world as good. The light, the water, the plants, the separation of day and night are all good. Everything God creates is good – except for the reality of isolation for the first human being. ”It is not good for a human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). This is the first time in the Torah that God suggests a way of life is ill-advised or even out of bounds.
Or, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik elaborates in his seminal work, The Lonely Man of Faith, “it is not good for a man to work (not to be) alone.” We should live our lives with relationships of meaning, in which we can share of our truest selves, be heard, and feel needed by others. If we do not have those relationships, it will not be good for us or the world.
Even as the Torah’s response to the first human’s isolation is fraught with problematic gender norms in the creation of Eve as a “helpmate” to Adam, the underlying wisdom of companionship in its different manifestations is core to our tradition. People need each other, or as Aristotle says, human beings are “political animals,” innately able to connect with one another and in need of doing so.
Our tradition honors this core human capacity and need to be together. In order to pray, we usually require a quorum of ten people. At Passover Seders, there’s a reason we invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Shabbat dinners are renown for uninterrupted time together with loved ones each week. At Sukkot, we are told to invite over guests and even make would-be strangers feel welcome. Some communities dance in the streets at Simchat Torah to help others feel connected to our community. At Chanukah, we are called to make the miracle known to the wider world, putting menorah’s in our windows to bring hope and light beyond our homes.
Jewish life is in so many ways intended to bring us out of the existential quandary of loneliness. And its rituals, customs, warmth – and the warmth of our community might most sorely be needed today. For I can’t help but see a connection between the spate of loneliness and spate of hatred that we see in public discourse and politics.
As one who recently moved from a suburban to an urban synagogue community, I have seen firsthand the way in which isolation impacts people differently in different areas. The yawning political and social divides between urban, suburban, and rural areas are almost certainly correlated with loneliness, which seems far more common in less densely populated areas.
Leading our day to day lives in closer proximity to other people might at times make us feel small and alone in a big city – and at other times feel meaningfully connected. Those small acts of kindness people do. The sense of commonality that we feel when we share a word with someone on the train who happens to be reading our favorite book. The sense of gratitude we experience when a total stranger goes out of their way to be polite. We constantly interact with other people, whether we want to or not.
The isolation that many of us feel is real – but could be far more pronounced in a suburban or rural environment in which even those brief interactions are limited or eliminated altogether. In major cities, we have to interact in order to exist. In the suburbs and rural parts of our country those basic human points of connection can be far rarer. It is a phenomenon I saw firsthand when serving a community less than twenty miles away from here.
And feeling lonely and disconnected makes us more prone to suspicion of other people. It is difficult to hate people and groups of people that we know. It is easy to hate people and groups that we don’t. That’s why white supremacist and other extremist groups recruit online among those who are isolated. People who are alone in the world find it easier to hate and will do anything for a sense of belonging.
To take a particularly timely example, one of the factors strongly correlated with whether or not an American has negative views of Muslims is whether they actually know any Muslims. Even having a Muslim colleague. Even going regularly to a Muslim lawyer or physician. Especially having a Muslim friend or family member – changes the way we see an entire group of people. It’s difficult to hate the people we know – and difficult to hate when we have social relationships at all.
I saw this firsthand in the wedding I performed years ago for an Evangelical Christian marrying a Muslim. Stepping in when no other clergy would officiate at the ceremony, I saw that the groom’s family from the backwoods of Washington State was discarding prejudice about Muslim-Americans day by day. Before meeting the brilliant bride, they associated Muslims solely with terrorism. Over time, they came to embrace the bride as a warm, loving, brilliant professional and true partner to the groom. They could not hate Muslims or see them as a homogeneous group once they knew individual Muslims personally.
The movement for LGBTQ rights likewise grew with historic speed because of the queer people who came out to their families and friends across the country with a combination of bravery and love. It was easy for many to hate the concept of a person who did not fit preconceived social norms, but incredibly difficult to hate a sibling, child, or friend with so many wonderful attributes – who also happened to be in the LGBTQ community. The personal became political, and LGBTQ rights surged forward once most Americans knew someone who self-identified as queer. The rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people became understood as fundamental human rights through relationship.
So today, as we encounter the rising tide of hatred in white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia, we must also look to the possibility that haters are also hurting. We must look to the possibility that people who hate are terribly isolated – and that those living in a “bubble” are not the educated denizens of coastal cities, but those who feel so socially alone in rural and suburban areas of America.
While isolation can never justify hate, we acknowledge it as a potential explanation. Perhaps relationship and genuine friendship can help the growing chorus of angry voices process their upset in more healthy ways and rid themselves of fear of so many groups in our society. For us, this means bravely reaching out to people who hold bigoted views and engaging them in conversation and dialogue – not merely diatribes. We will not change minds or win votes by isolating people who are already crying out for connection, albeit in hateful ways.
If relationships have been central to humanity since first our tradition found words to describe human beings, then surely we need them in order to reweave the social fabric that is fraying across the country – and to weave more tightly the relationships that give meaning to our lives.
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