We’re All in This Together

Americans are living lives increasingly isolated from each other, recent research finds. A quarter of Americans now report that they have not a single person to confide in with their most personal troubles, which is more than double the number reported twenty years ago. Overall, Americans report an average of two close confidants, down from three twenty years ago.

One’s spouse remains the single most important confidant in the average American’s life. Nearly 50 percent said their spouse was the only person they could trust with their deepest concerns. While this may seem like a good thing at the surface, in reality it places tremendous pressure on the marital relationship to “work,” and for both spouses to remain emotionally and physically invested in it. If the relationship fails, those without close confidants outside the relationship are left isolated and in danger.

One would think that with our increasingly networked lives, via blogs, IM, email, myspace, and the like, people would be more connected than ever, but that seems not to be the case. A person can have 200 friends on myspace, but no one to talk to when faced with a scary medical situation, for example. Our communications networks are vast, but our messages are trivial and at least one or two steps removed from actually sitting down and talking to someone face-to-face. How many of us email or IM our co-workers rather than walking over to their office? (guilty as charged)

I’m convinced of the paradoxical reality of the “networked but isolated American.” For me, the definitive text on the phenomenon is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, mentioned briefly in the above article. It’s a thick and dragging read on the concept of “social capital,” i.e. the social benefits we derive from interpersonal relationships. Putnam argues that our isolated lives have undercut America’s reserve of social capital, which in aggregate leads to much less pleasant lives (a neighborhood with poor social connections, for example, is not likely to form a Neighborhood Watch and keep crime down). I’m vastly simplifying here, but it’s been 3 or 4 years since I actually read the book.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about lately. I’m probably one of those “networked but isolated” types who has more relationships online than in person. Indeed, as a single person if it wasn’t for my small group Bible study, I might be in that confidant-less 25 percent. So what’s a guy to do? Thank God for those friends he has, and endeavor to get out more. 🙂

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