The Critical Need for Community
Something is wrong in our society. In November of 2018 the CDC reported that overall there were over 2.8 million deaths in the U.S. in 2017. That’s 700,000 more deaths than in 2016, the most deaths in a single year since the CDC started keeping track. The deaths of younger and middle aged Americans have actually caused a decline in our life expectancy. Why are so many more young people dying? According to the CDC it's because of suicide and drug overdose. A study by the American Medical Association says that deaths from illicit opioid abuse are expected to rise by 147% by the year 2025. In general we are aware that rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction are rising. The CDC reports that an estimated 50% of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. So what is happening to us as a society? Why are we struggling so much with our mental and emotional health? I think the reasons for this are complex and multifaceted. I don’t want to suggest a simple explanation. I recognize there are a lot of economic and social factors involved. However, there is something that we know can help us in the face of these challenges: each other. Community. Community is one of the greatest if not the greatest factor when it comes to our health and happiness. This is supported by science. The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the longest and most comprehensive longitudinal studies of adult development in history. It has been running for over 75 years and counting. There is a TED talk about this study called “What Makes for a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness,” given by the fourth director of the study Robert Waldinger. They looked at people from all different educational and economic backgrounds and the biggest takeaway from the study, the most significant thing that impacted the health and happiness of the participants of the study was their relationships. Those who had close family and/or friends were happier and healthier in life. Those who were unhappy were the opposite. They didn’t have community or close relationships and they suffered more health problems.
There is a documentary called Happy which also examined what factors contribute to people’s happiness all over the world in different cultures. While there were several factors that played a part, there was one thing that all happy people who were studied had in common: close relationships. They all had community. In my work as a psychotherapist I also found this to be true with my clients. Those who were doing well mentally and emotionally had a lot of social support. Those who struggled the most were also the most isolated or had unhealthy relationships. There is a great video about loneliness that explains how (in addition to depression, anxiety, suicide, and addiction) loneliness is on the rise in our culture. The video also explains how this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. When human beings lived as hunters and gatherers, we stuck together as a group for our survival. The group unit was absolutely essential. Throughout history our community offered us comfort, safety, support, entertainment...everything. The community helped you raise your children and took care of you when you were sick. It offered protection from all kinds of dangers and people worked as a team to survive. There were no loners. If you were cast out of the tribe, it was basically a death sentence. We were created to be in relationship with one another for our very survival.
Science supports that we are simply happier and healthier when we have community and we suffer when we are isolated. Yet today it has become increasingly difficult for us to have connection with our community and to socialize. We are more isolated today than in the past, ironically, with all our social media technology. We desperately need to recognize how important our relationships are for our well-being. Community is just as important for our health as diet, exercise, or sleep. Of course, recognition is only the first step. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to actually build those relationships. We still have to do the work. We still have to go out and make the effort to build relationships, and that’s not easy. I wonder if church can help us to build community and stay connected with one another.
You might ask, why do we need church in order to have community? Can’t I just get to know my neighbors? Can’t I just join an exercise group at the gym or join a Meetup group online? There are lots of ways to create community, such as doing sports. Why church? This is a fair point. All of these are valid ways of creating community and building relationships, and I encourage doing them. I think they are important and if this is the way that you connect with others then keep doing it! Although, I think we need a space to be able to talk about the big stuff. Where do you go when you need to get real with others about life? Where do you go when you need to talk about the things that really matter to you, the things that keep you awake at night; like your fear of death, or your troubled relationship with your father, or your addiction, or your doubts about the existence of God? There are not many venues where this kind of conversation is appropriate apart from a therapist's office. Isn't that crazy? Shouldn't we have a space in which to talk about these deeply important things? I recognize that church has not always been that space for people. Far from it; although I think that ideally it should be. For me, spirituality is the domain that encompasses the deepest parts of our lives. It's where we are supposed to talk about meaning and purpose in life. It's supposed to be a place where we can doubt and question openly. We should be able to struggle together and have support.
I envision church not as a place where you go once a week to pay your dues to God, but where you move through life together with your community. It should be like a family. You go through significant and meaningful life events with this community like birth, marriage, death, and other rites of passage. What would it be like to have this kind of close-knit and extended family again? What would it be like to be part of a community that is your tribe, your gang, the people that will be there for you when you are in trouble and will help support you in times of need? We need a place where people are committed to supporting each other in that way. That even though it may be difficult at times, to know that they have always got your back and you have theirs. People are starving for that. It is possible to have this kind of community, but it's up to us to build and create it. We can't wait for others. We have to take initiative and put in the effort to do it. That could mean investing yourself in your local church and helping it create this kind of community. Churches will ultimately respond to the needs of their members if enough of them stand up and make those needs known. If not, maybe you could start your own community, for example, on Meetup.com. I recognize that this level of community is extremely hard to find for many people, but ironically we are not alone in the struggle to create community. It takes time, but if we don't give up and keep taking small steps and keep reaching out, eventually we will get there.