Various metrics confirm that, over the last 30 years there has been a sharp increase in loneliness. Almost one in four Americans (most under the age of 50) feel isolated, many with no person in whom to confide, according to a 2018 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with The Economist. Last year in the U.K., the prime minister appointed a “minister for loneliness” in an effort to draw attention to what increasingly is seen as a societal epidemic contributing to depression and other health risks, mental and physical.
While superficially we’re more connected than ever through social-media platforms, such connectivity often serves merely to reinforce our isolation by setting a stage for a pantomime of relationship that bears closer resemblance to performer and audience member than it does to friend, lover, beloved — all of which demand vulnerability and being known.
But this loneliness trend predates social media. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: Examining Our Increasing Trend of Isolation was based on an essay that was published in 1995, when an already alarming number of people were reporting feelings of loneliness. Modern isolation is distinct from solitude, the latter being more like a conscious and positive retreat from distraction. Isolation is more of an omission, a deprivation of what ought to be.
What is missing and from what have we cut ourselves off? As we march forward into a new progressive future of our own making, what are we jettisoning along the way? From churches to families, from our historical and literary patrimony in the humanities, to our common mores — more and more often, we have been saying “no.” For many not raised with any connection to the richness of such things, the “no” is not of protest, but of apathy. It is a shrug, a resounding “meh” to things the depths of which we have not penetrated, a rejection without an understanding what it is we reject.
Women, whom we most empower to lead and drive this march forward, are often the ones most deeply and negatively affected by it. Our liberation depends on severing ourselves from the things of the past. We approach with suspicion what threatens to tie us down or inhibit our choices. This includes not only our biology but also any felt need for a man or children.
But human beings need one another. Any woman experiencing pregnancy and postpartum knows this is harrowing stuff to go at alone. A child without a father or a mother intuitively knows the depth of that void. Denying our vulnerability does not erase our vulnerability. It merely isolates us, leaving us alone and unmoored. Being unmoored is not dissimilar from simply being lost, and what the lost person wants is home.
According to a 2019 Harvard report, Americans spend $450 billion dollars annually on home improvement. Over the last decade or so, entire networks have cropped up devoted entirely to such endeavors. It makes sense. With our roots cut off we are desperate to patch and tether ourselves into place however we can. Home is an object of fundamental desire, deeper than a poured foundation and higher than vaulted ceilings. We desperately want a place with a sense of permanence, safety, care. We want messy and beautiful and real, with bodies and dishes and wine, tears and snorts of laughter.
We are in search of home. But our progressive march requires us to sever ourselves from not only the obligations of home but also from the ethos of home — the place where we are known, loved, nourished, and safe. Home is where our vulnerability, rather than being denied, is seen and known and met with assurance and care. And when it goes wrong it is deeply wounding.
It is no coincidence that the most visible icon of women being cut off from any tie that binds is a place of physical and communal rupture: Planned Parenthood. Against the ethos of home stands this preeminent billion-dollar industry. Its influence permeates every hot-pink–hatted progressive march. It is the place where isolation comes to us most intimately. It is where we go to be severed from our kin, from our biology, from an acknowledgement of our existential need. It is where we go to pretend that sex, the most intimate physical act of knowing, is one that creates no ties and requires no intimacy.
Home, on the other hand, is where we go to heal and become whole. When we are pregnant or postpartum, we hunker down at home recovering and bonding, needing one another and needing our lovers’ selfless care and protection.
Or we march alone: each man able to impregnate a woman but obligated to neither the woman nor the product of conception (in the sterile vernacular of the abortion industry), and each woman liberated from any connection to man or to their child inside. Each of us an island, autonomous and adrift. Woman and child, united in one body, walk into Planned Parenthood and come out dismantled and shattered: one literally, the other symbolically and spiritually. Another tie is severed, and we are deeply and profoundly alone.
Yet our fundamental desire for community remains. It might manifest itself in an inordinate emphasis on home improvement — on Turkish towels, hand-thrown pottery, and the latest tile backsplash. But the thing is not the thing. If we can see through these efforts to anchor and subsume ourselves into material beauty, we might see that though these things are good and worthwhile, they are also sign posts, hinting to us of our deeper need. They are whispers and shadows of our longing for a kind of beauty that is a continuum of sacrificial love and generation, permanence and lineage, linking us to past and present and to one another, as well as to a destination somewhere just ahead. Home.
Carrie Gress and Noelle Mering are the co-authors of Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday (TAN Books, September 2019).