Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Why are Americans more lonely than ever?

Is our current divisive political climate really just a symptom of widespread loneliness? (My son says that whenever an author poses a question like this the answer is always yes.) Jonah Goldberg thinks so.

Years ago I used to read Goldberg's musings with some regularity. But that stopped when I broke up with my former political self. The nation's political climate has become increasingly noxious since that time. Myself? I've never been happier.

In a recent National Review article Goldberg essentially classes himself and people like him as part of the problem. He says that "it is an occupational hazard in [his] line of work to be constantly drenched in the muck of politics." But that's not what I'm talking about. Political commentators have been around since the dawn of humans.

I'm talking about Goldberg's acknowledgement that he and his wife are among the increasing number of Americans who opt for dogs over children. He calls dogs a political safe harbor. "They don’t care about political correctness. They don’t want to Make America Great Again or join the “Resistance.” They just want to pursue doggie goodness as they see it."

Now don't get me wrong. I too love dogs and I am in favor of people having the right to keep and bear dogs—as long as they are responsible pet owners. But Goldberg cites psychologist Clay Routledge as describing increasing dog ownership as "a symptom of America’s very real loneliness crisis." Routledge says that "pets may be appealing to some because they lack the agency of humans and thus require less compromise and sacrifice." It has long been known that it's easier to raise a dog than a human, but increasing numbers of humans are forgoing the latter in favor of the former.

Goldberg goes on to cite Senator Ben Sasse's contention in his book Them that "America’s loneliness crisis" is evident in the dramatic decline in Americans' real life social contacts over the past generation. This crisis is only made worse "in the era of the smartphone," where "young people report much more anxiety and isolation."

Putting the dots together, Goldberg opines, "The increasing nastiness of our politics is a byproduct of our social isolation. We look to politics to provide the sense of meaning and belonging once found in community and religion, which is why everything is becoming politicized. The problem is that politics, particularly at the national level, is necessarily about disagreement, which is why it cannot provide the sense of unity people crave from it."

This also helps explain the politics of constant outrage. Americans who are disconnected from God and from each other try to fill the void where transcendence once resided with passion for causes. In their quest for purpose and meaning they burn with rage over mountains and molehills alike, while still finding emptiness within when the furor subsides.

It's no secret that some of the loneliest people on earth have the largest list of social media contacts. But people can even be lonely and feel isolated in crowds and at gatherings with friends. I believe that this is often due to the lack of a working relationship with Deity which is fostered by the seeming increasing irrelevance of religion to many moderns.

The Apostle John taught in 1 John 4:20-21 that love of God requires love of our fellow beings. He asserts that those who profess a love of God while failing to love their neighbors are fooling themselves. Those who delude themselves into thinking that government and/or business can satisfactorily take the place of religion ought to consider the problems the decline in religious observance is causing for disaster recovery efforts (see 1/4/19 DNews article).

It seems that love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined. Selflessness is best fostered in an environment that imbues daily living with eternally ennobling purpose. It's easier to raise a dog than to raise a child. But raising a dog is all about the owner, while raising a child involves heavy focus on the needs of another person over whom the parent has steadily decreasing control.

Interestingly, control was the main issue behind the premortal war in heaven. Lucifer wanted to force people to be 'good.' Of course, the elimination of agency would thwart the ability of God's children to progress and develop divine attributes that can only be fostered through free choice.

Some choose pet ownership over child rearing because it's easier to force their will on a pet than it would be to force their will on a child. In a recent meeting I attended, a church leader quipped that as his children get older and make choices with which he disagrees, he sometimes thinks Lucifer's plan would be a great idea.

In a similar vein, a great deal of politics is about control and coercion; forcing people to do what various political actors think is right. Each political faction is certain that it knows how best to manage the lives of others. As Goldberg notes, this is hardly a recipe for unity.

We know that humans tend to exercise unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39). But it seems that loneliness and isolation increase the tendency to seek to control others and force them to 'be good.' The less we personally interact with others, the more 'other' they seem and the more we want to force them into a mold that looks strikingly similar to ourselves.

We can expect increasing alienation and contention among Americans as we substitute politics for divine worship. Swapping this counterfeit for the real thing seems like a surefire way to decrease unity, happiness, and peace.