I have a friend who once worked at a school for poor children in Central America. One year, he invited one of the high schoolers, who was then attending a boarding school in America, to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family in New York City. After a whirlwind weekend, my friend asked the young man for his impressions of the distinctly, perhaps preeminent, American holiday and city.

“Well,” the high schooler said, “Thanksgiving was kind of like every day in my house. And, to be honest, New York seems like a really lonely place.”


Another friend of mine who spent a year in India working with International Justice Mission (IJM) reported a consonant experience. To be sure, he witnessed horrible atrocities (IJM works to free people caught is various forms of slavery, from child labor to prostitution and beyond), but there was also a connection between people, a sense of community, unlike anything he had previously experienced.

Now, lest this little article become a trite repetition of “USA bad, Developing World good,” let it be noted that I am not the first to recognize the profound isolation and alienation of contemporary American life, even before our current age of division. The American ideal of rugged individualism, which has its benefits, has also led us to place of deep loneliness. I can’t tell you how many single people I have met who were once in love, but didn’t get married because “it wasn’t the right time,” or couples who decided (or were perhaps forced) to spend some indeterminate amount of time apart for the good of their careers. My wife and I are currently one of them.

Even when we speak of family ties, we most often refer only to the so-called “nuclear family” – mom, dad and 2.5 kids – and even this may have been a profound mistake, as David Brooks proposes in his recent mini-tome for the Atlantic. As we are currently discovering, we may need more than our spouses and kids to survive, no matter how much we love them. And God help us if we live alone.

All of which makes me wonder (idealistically, no doubt), if this is the moment when we will discover the virtues and necessity of non-virtual, non-vicarious relationships and interaction. As confusing, inefficient, challenging and awkward as interpersonal relationships can be, especially in emotional group settings like (gasp!) church, we may find ourselves thirsting for them in the wake of “social distancing.” My hunch is that, while “social media” may be currently saving our lives, we will quickly discover its limits. Perhaps we might even conclude (or, more importantly, feel!) that we need each other, not just as extended families, but as communities, and maybe even as a nation. Of course, we already know this (at least vicariously), as every popular sitcom of the last two decades, from Cheers to Seinfeld, Friends to Community, The Office to Modern Family, involves a group of impossible people who are, nonetheless, devoted to one another. All of these shows will be massively streamed in the next few months, but it won’t be enough. We will want more. As God said in the Garden, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2.18).

Then again, maybe not. But here’s hoping. Real people are so much more compelling than their avatars.