I’m reflecting on Richard Beck’s series, Alone, Suburban and Sorted, which began here.
In part 1, he talks about the decline in card-playing since the 1970s — when 40% of Americans played cards with friends at least once a month — as an indicator of increased societal isolation. But, as Beck notes, “it’s not really about card games. It’s about welcoming people into your home. The cards were just an excuse and something to do while you talked. But this trend is also going down. In the 1970s Americans entertained people in their homes 14-15 times a year, a little over once a month. In the late 1990s that number had dropped to eight times a year, a decline of 45% in less than two decades.”
Unlike Beck’s parents, mine in the 1960s and 1970s never played cards with friends, at least not in my memory. Nor did they entertain people in our home, or go out often to anyone else’s homes. I don’t have a model for that way of being. Of course, we lived in the suburbs even then, but I think cocktail parties and bridge games were pretty common in the suburbs back then. What my parents did do was to socialise with people in other ways, my dad with his hiking buddies on the weekends, my mom during the weekdays (think coffee klatch) with other women who lived in the neighbourhood.
But dinner time and afterward for us was family time, and we spent it in isolation from other families or couples, mostly watching TV as a family, and doing homework and talking to friends on the phone (and later, out on dates or working) when we spent time apart from our parents.
Now, I entertain groups of people in my home maybe 8 times per year, in a good year, but I would love to entertain every week, whether it’s a bookgroup meeting, a few friends over for coffee or drinks, a more formal dinner, a barbeque party, etc. My spouse isn’t so inclined, however, and that makes it difficult, at least at nights and on the weekends. I guess I could entertain more during the weekdays, but many fewer people are available at that time now than in the 1960s.
In part 2, Church and Politics, Beck talks about a ‘hollowing out’ of participation in church and politics; rates of voting and of church membership and attendance have declined, yes, but so also have informal ways of being socially and communally engaged in church and civic life: people may vote or attend church, but we are less likely now to get deeply involved and to be part of group activities.
In sum, says, Beck,
“although Americans might be just as religious as they have been in the past, they are slowly withdrawing from church life. Americans might believe in God but they don’t belong anywhere, religiously speaking. Faith has become a solo activity.”
I feel that faith is not necessarily a solo activity, but more that church doesn’t offer any more connection to God than many other communal activities, like being part of my bookgroup or being a regular at the local coffee shop, and even (blasphemy!) participation in some online groups. I do appreciate and desire some communal activities, but not those that feel forced, fake, inorganic, top-down. The worst is when the spontaneity feels orchestrated and mob-like, and that describes church too often. Though intellectually I could make a case for the value of these kinds of activities, at the level of longing they don’t satisfy me and they don’t make me hungry, either. They drain me and leave me feeling empty and hopeless.
Beck ends Part 2 with this:
“My point in talking about these trends isn’t to sing a sad song of lament. Mainly I’m just trying to illustrate how alone we are. Americans are disengaged informally (there’s less entertaining in the home, fewer bowling leagues), civically (there’s less engagement in local politics) and religiously (there’s less church participation). Across the board we are ‘bowling alone’ ‘more and more often.”
My fear with my upcoming move to a new area is that I will end up alone, isolated informally, civically, and religiously. It occurs to me, though, that in the last town we lived in, I felt very alone and yet I was involved informally — I entertained at home more than I do here; now I ‘entertain’ more in 3rd places, and they work well; and I was part of a bookgroup and the garden club — and civically — I served on the town finance committee and the library board, took adult ed classes, volunteered at the library and with Meals on Wheels. I wasn’t involved religiously, with a church, but it didn’t feel like a lack. What I missed was feeling I was among people I had something in common with, a few people who could really be close friends. I’ve been fortunate to find those people in this town. I have a feeling that Beck will talk about this desire to be with others who are seen as similar in the “sorted” section of his series.