Saturday, August 14, 2010

Either "Look at All the Lonely People" OR "You've Got a Friend"

“No other comparable nation,” the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes, “has such a high level of multiple marital and cohabiting unions.”  (In Daniel Akst, "America: Land of the Loners," in The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2010)

Highlights of Akst's essay include:
  • Family life in the United States is unstable.
  • This is due to the loss of real community, as Americans create greater and greater distance between one another.
  • "Friendship could pick up some of the interpersonal slack."
  • "Sizzling eros" hogs the spotlight in America.
  • A return to philia, "friendship," will help us all.
  • "Today “friends” are everywhere in our culture—the average Facebook user has 130—and friendship, of a diluted kind, is our most characteristic relationship: voluntary, flexible, a “lite” alternative to the caloric meshugaas of family life."
  • Modern friendships are a "thin gruel." Deeper friendships provide a "more nourishing fare." (Note: much ink is now being spilled on how shallow a culture we are. Anyone interested in deeper living and deeper friendships would do well to read J.P. Moreland's The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life.)
  • Ahhh... I just cited Moreland, then return to more of Akst and read: "Aristotle, who saw friendship as essential to human flourishing, shrewdly observed that it comes in three distinct flavors: those based on usefulness (contacts), on pleasure (drinking buddies), and on a shared pursuit of virtue—the highest form of all. True friends, he contended, are simply drawn to the goodness in one another, goodness that today we might define in terms of common passions and sensibilities." J.P. would like this!
  • If Aristotle took this too seriously, today "the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and in our culture we take friendship—a state of strong mutual affection in which sex or kinship isn’t primary—far too lightly. We’re good at currying contacts and we may have lots of pals, but by falling short on Aristotle’s third and most important category of friendship, we’ve left a hole in our lives. Now that family life is in turmoil, reinvigorating our notion of friendship—to mean something more than mere familiarity—could help fill some of the void left by disintegrating household arrangements and social connections frayed by the stubborn individualism of our times."
  • "We live now in a climate in which friends appear dispensable. While most of us wouldn’t last long outside the intricate web of interdependence that supplies all our physical needs—imagine no electricity, money, or sewers—we’ve come to demand of ourselves truly radical levels of emotional self-sufficiency. In America today, half of adults are unmarried, and more than a quarter live alone."
  • "In a separate study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), surveyed more than 3,000 randomly chosen Americans and found they had an average of four “close social contacts” with whom they could discuss important matters or spend free time. But only half of these contacts were solely friends; the rest were a variety of others, including spouses and children."
  • "The number of household pets has exploded throughout the Western world." Which suggests that our best friends are our dogs, cats, fish, gerbils, and parakeets.
  • "John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who studies loneliness, says he’s convinced that more Americans are lonely—not because we have fewer social contacts, but because the ones we have are more harried and less meaningful."
  • Cultural contributers to our loneliness include: 1) relocating for a different job, thus losing any established friendships; 2) our high divorce rate; a couple not only loses one another but an entire family netowork; 3) the American way of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and self-reliance; and 4) "the remorseless eroticization of human relations that was bequeathed to us by Sigmund Freud."
  • Tribal cultures understand friendship; we don't.
  • "Living in a society of friends has many advantages. Friendship can moderate our behavior (unless, like the television mobster Tony Soprano, you happen to choose immoderate friends). Friends help us establish and maintain norms and can tell us if we’re running off the rails when others don’t notice, won’t break the news, or lack the necessary credibility. Both our relatives and our friends, the psychologist Howard Rachlin writes, “are essential mirrors of the patterns of our behavior over long periods—mirrors of our souls. They are the magic ‘mirrors on the wall’ who can tell us whether this drink, this cigarette, this ice-cream sundae, this line of cocaine, is more likely to be part of a new future or an old past.”"
  • Friendship can prolong our lives.
Akst's essay is a good read. The subject matter is important. The implications for those of us who are Jesus-followers are many.