Becoming Rooted in a Time of Social Distancing
Sen. Ben Sasse's book Them offers insight on the importance of reconnecting to our local communities. The current crisis could be the perfect time to start.
America is weathering a frightening epidemic, and I don’t mean COVID-19. The symptoms are social isolation, depression, loneliness, and vitriolic political partisanship. The disease? Rootlessness.
Recent and rapid advances in technology have created a much more mobile world. Travel has never been easier. It’s common to switch jobs and even states every few years. Some may view this nomadic existence as alluring and adventurous. Many also find it lonely. Constantly being on the go makes it hard to put down roots in any one place. At least we can stay connected through social media, right? Well, social media is sly. It tricks us into thinking we’re more connected, all the while disconnecting us from the real relationships that give life meaning.
So we’re rootless and suffering for it. But what if this pandemic — and I do mean COVID-19 — presents the opportunity to root ourselves once more?
Isolated and Adrift
In his book Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How to Heal, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) recalls the “community cohesion” of generations past. Such cohesion came from growing up, working, and raising a family in roughly the same geographic location. People had “meaningful” connections to their neighbors, because they actually experienced life together for decades. Today, “our communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposeless than ever before.”
These changes negatively affect our health. Consider this sobering statement from Sasse:
Among epidemiologists, psychiatrists, public-health officials, and social scientists, there is a growing consensus that the number one health crisis in America right now is not cancer, not obesity, and not heart disease — it’s loneliness.
“Studies suggest that one lonely day exacts roughly the same toll on the body as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes,” he notes. Loneliness also threatens mental health. It can lead to depression, anxiety and addiction.
The definition of loneliness is complex. “According to psychologists, loneliness is not merely isolation or an individual’s ‘perception of being alone and isolated,’” Sasse writes. It includes the “inability to find meaning in one’s life.”
Sasse argues that we make up for our lack of social connection and meaning with “anti-tribes.” What are anti-tribes? He defines them as “an us-versus-them politics and a rage-fueled media complex that exploits our divisions for clicks.” These anti-tribes are a poor substitute for the community we desire. In fact, they’re damaging our republic.
What Are the Needs in Your Community?
So what do we do? Sasse offers several suggestions. The most important boil down to “new habits of mind and heart … new practices of neighborliness.” We need to invest — root ourselves — in our local communities. We can do this even if we’re unlikely to live here forever.
“Our instincts on why we should delay ‘rootedness’ are all wrong,” Sasse writes. “I’ll invest once I’m where I’m supposed to be! I’ll have more time in a year! Once I move into a better neighborhood, I’ll . . . No. The perfect will always be the enemy of the good. In the real world, the only real community is where you are.”
And I’d argue that a great time to start getting rooted in our local communities is now, while we’re all stuck in them.
Wait, aren’t we supposed to be social distancing? How can we address loneliness when we’re literally alone? First of all, “social distancing” needn’t equal social disconnectedness. (Many prefer the term “physical distancing” to emphasize exactly that.) Secondly, though the digital revolution contributed largely to our social fracturing, it could now prove a vital tool in helping us reconnect. Here are three things we can do to get started.
1. Connect with a neighbor
Many of us have neighbors we haven’t truly spoken with, or even met. Through neighborhood Facebook groups and apps like Nextdoor, now is the time to send a message and see what they need. Is there an elderly couple around the corner? A family with several small children? Why not offer to save them a trip outside and drop groceries on their doorstep? When things get back to normal, follow up with a dinner invitation — bothersome political signs in their yard notwithstanding.
2. Assist local charity work
Do you know how many nonprofit organizations operate in your city? Is there a pregnancy center, food bank, or homeless shelter down the road? There probably is, and they’re probably in need of extra help right now. Search the internet and social media to find these organizations and learn what they need. The most you can probably do right now is donate money or needed items. But after the pandemic passes, consider volunteering in person. Meet the people serving your community. Meet the people they serve.
3. Spend locally
We all have our favorites chains — Starbucks, Walmart, Chick-fil-A — that we frequent due to convenience or name recognition. But it’s the locally owned businesses that are really hurting right now. How familiar are you with the locally-owned businesses in your vicinity? Use the internet and learn what they are. When you have to get out for essential business, shop local. And keep shopping local.
People are good at pulling together in a crisis, but the key to really becoming rooted is making these new habits stick. I doubt there’s a person in America who isn’t pining for things to get back to normal. But it’d be a shame if after all this, things went back to normal in every way — if we reentered our communities physically, only to keep retreating emotionally.
Liberty McArtor, former staff writer for The Stream, is a freelance writer in the great state of Texas, where she lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex with her husband and son. Follow Liberty on Twitter @LibertyMcArtor, or learn more about her at LibertyMcArtor.com.