“It is not good for the man to be alone.”
-Genesis 2:18 (NIV)
When I was a teenager, it wasn’t uncommon to see some friends and I in a parking lot on a warm Friday night. We’d park our cars in a clump, and whoever had the best sound system would open his doors and turn it up as loud as the cops would allow. Then we’d sit around, talking, joking, and listening to music.
I don’t see that much anymore. Maybe it’s just the difference between Chicago, where I live now, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I lived then. Now, I see individual teenagers listening to music on iPods or phones. Sharing music, if it’s done at all, seems to happen on Facebook. Like lots of things that used to require a gathering, a community.
Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, has recently published a book called Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. As the title suggests, the book examines the trend of adults living alone - a trend that Dr. Klinenberg’s research suggests has been steadily growing over the last 50-60 years.
Dr. Klinenberg points out that “no society has ever sustained large numbers of people living alone for long periods of time,” but that in the 1950’s and 1960’s that trend in “developed” societies in the world began to change. “Living alone ha[s] become incredibly common,” he says, “and...people do it wherever and whenever they can afford to.” He calls living alone “a luxury,” because of its relative expense, “although we don’t normally think of it that way.”
The book distinguishes between four categories of “singletons”: young people who have delayed marriage, adults 35-65 who generally have been married and are now divorced, separated, or widowed, poor and often ill men living in SRO’s, and those who are aging alone. The interesting thing in the research is that three of these four groups generally try to “make living alone a very social experience.” Dr. Klinenberg says that his study suggests that those who live alone “are more social than people who are married,” in that they spend more time with friends and neighbors. Strikingly, many of the people in Dr. Klinenberg’s study expressed a clear preference for living alone.
One of the important themes that the book keeps coming back to is the difference between being alone and being lonely. People who live alone, he suggests, generally find ways to create social opportunities, and surround themselves with other “singletons” who are looking for the same opportunities. Those who have been married and divorced often say that they felt lonelier in their unhappy marriages than they do living alone.
I find this interesting because the church, at least in its modern, Western incarnation, has seemed to emphasize families. Our programming, from wedding and baby showers, marriage, and marriage counseling to Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and youth groups for teenagers has assumed that our pews would be full of traditional families. We don’t tend to program, budget, or spend for ministry to those in different situations, such as those in Dr. Klinenberg’s book. But if his book is a true reflection of a change in societal trends, then it might be that a significant number of folks in our communities and neighborhoods might have a hard time seeing what the gospel says to them.
Interestingly, Jesus recognizes that some people might be called to a life of singleness. Paul seems to even favor that lifestyle, because it leaves a person free of marital and parental obligations that might limit his service of the Lord. Ironic, then, that in the church we sometimes treat singleness as less-than-ideal, a condition to be tolerated until an appropriate mate can be found. Some folks in our pews are perfectly content to be single, and we should affirm that choice and help them to find the life and work that God is calling them to.
Some of the single folks we go to church with aren’t content, however. They not only live alone - they’re lonely. We need to recall that the Psalmist describes God as one who “puts the lonely in families” and “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” God cares deeply about those who are lonely, who come to church on Sundays and who go back home wondering if anyone noticed or cared. Lonely people don’t always say that they’re lonely. In fact, they often won’t. They’ll live with it, carry it around with them, and sooner or later stop even trying to reach out. They’ll fear dying alone, but often won’t voice that fear. They need family. They need the Father who places the lonely in families, the Son who sees a sister or a brother in the face of anyone who obeys God.
Sometimes, though, God wants to place the lonely in specific families. Of course, the church is a family. But it’s hard to share a meal or a trip or a ball game with the whole church. Sometimes, God wants to use your family or my family as a surrogate for someone who’s lonely. And so we have to be open to that possibility, through offered dinner invitations and invitations to our kids’ games and plays and just hanging out. If you know someone who’s lonely, or maybe even just alone, be open to the possibility that God might want to use your family to do his work of providing a place for that person to belong.
The fact is, though, that it might be surprising to us who is lonely. Dr. Klinenberg’s study suggests that loneliness may be both a much wider and more hidden problem than we suspect. If all people who are alone are not lonely, then it also stands to reason that all lonely people are not alone. People in troubled relationships might be lonely. Teens in dysfunctional families. Single parents with few adult relationships. Older people caring for sick spouses. Unemployed people. Even people who work too hard for too long. Loneliness comes in many forms.
I’ve had recent conversations with church leaders, ministers and elders, in which the subject of loneliness has come up. If living on your own doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, then neither does being surrounded by people mean that you’re not.
It takes knowing people to discover where loneliness lurks. Being willing to share life with them, listen to them when they talk. Being sensitive enough to pick up the hints that folks are feeling forgotten, overlooked, and directionless.
The Holy Spirit will help us in this work, because it’s God’s work. He knows that it’s never been good for people to face life with no one at our sides, no one to have our backs. Even in paradise, human beings needed other human beings to make God’s love real, experiential, concrete. He places the lonely in families.
And we don’t even have to sit in a parking lot all night.