"People Must Belong to a Tribe." - E.O. Wilson
I read Chip’s post “Longevity is Becoming "Shortevity“ and couldn’t help but think that the problems shortening our longevity: overdoses, suicide, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, gun violence— are all problems of not belonging to one other.
In the popular TED Talk "Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong," journalist Johann Hari surveys the research on the underlying causes of addiction and concludes that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Addiction is not about the harmful habituation of pleasurable experiences, it’s about the user’s inability to connect in healthy ways to other human beings. Addiction isn’t a disordered relationship to a substance, it’s a breakdown of what keeps us emotionally and spiritually healthy: a sense of connection with others.
I recently read a book called The Art of Community by Charles Vogl. In it, there are a wealth of statistics about the decline of civic space and its alarming implications:
- Since the 1980s, the number of people who say that they have no one to talk to about difficult subjects has tripled. The size of the average person’s social network has decreased by ⅓.
- In the 1970s, almost 2/3s of Americans attended some sort of club meeting. By the late 1990s, the figure was ⅓. The average American invested about ⅓ less time in organizational life between 1965 to 1995. Even the number of picnics went down 60 percent from 1975-1999.
- Social scientists have been asking a cross-section of U.S. citizens a simple question for years: “How many confidants do you have?” They wanted to know how many people you could turn to in a crisis, or when something really good happens to you. When they started doing the study several decades ago, the average number of close friends an American had was three. By 2004, the most common answer was none.
- And loneliness is harmful. People who are socially connected are happier, delay health declines, and live longer. Having weak social ties has been shown to be as harmful as alcoholism or smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day!
All these statistics are pre-internet. I suspect that the explosion of Internet use is partially in response to these trends; we spend more and more time online because we don’t feel connected to others. Ironically, however, this contributes to lowering our participation to civic life and to real life engagement.
Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah’s Social Capital Project reports that, between 1974 and 2016, the percent of adults who said they spend a social evening with a neighbor at least several times a week fell from 30 percent to 19 percent. “The connective tissue that facilitates cooperation has eroded,” the report concludes, “leaving us less equipped to solve problems together within our communities,” and more likely to turn to the state (or cynicism). To state the obvious, the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.
This issue of civic loneliness is critical, both for our personal lives and for our politics as well. What happens when we don’t feel connected to each other anymore? What happens when we don’t trust the people around us? It causes all the problems shortening our lives - overdoses, suicide, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, gun violence. It causes the deepening rift in our society. Both sides of the divide, conservatives and liberals, feel it.
Charles Vogl has a great definition of community: “when at least two people feel concern for each other’s welfare.” Relationships of mutual concern is what so many of us feel when we go down to MEA in Baja. What’s interesting is, under that definition, building a community isn’t the job of the leadership, it’s the task of the people in it. Mutual, continuing concern for another is what YOU bring. It’s YOUR contribution to building community.
The collective sum of individual care and concern, not Chip, Christine, and Jeff, is what makes this community successful. I’m hoping that MEA alumni bring back what they felt in Baja to the places they live. There is no “there” there in Pescadero. MEA isn’t a magical place because it’s placed on a beach with a lot of sun; MEA is a special place because people care about each other there. Wherever you live can be that too. Take that reciprocal relationship of caring and apply it to where you live. By that profound simple act, we make ourselves and everyone around us healthier. It is then when we are, as Ram Dass said, walking each other home.
Douglas Tsoi is a spiritual director and personal finance teacher. He is gratefully a three-time MEA alum.