Isolation Versus Community


Tree of Life Synagogue

Tree of Life Synagogue / Creative Commons / Common Dreams

Last night after meeting with my LGBTQ book club and talking about social isolation, and what I had written but not yet posted about the massacre in Pennsylvania, I thought I should go ahead and post the piece here.
Then, this morning, I woke up to another massacre, this one in a Southern California club. In the hopes that in the midst of so many of our hearts breaking over the news, wondering what in the world we can do to make a difference, I post this so that it might be food for thought and perhaps food for action and hope.

Sitting in Michigan visiting with my family a headline crossed the TV screen about the mass shooting at a temple in a Pennsylvania synagogue. My cousin dove for the remote and switched to another channel so her young children wouldn’t see the breaking news in the middle of a family reunion. After my sister and I returned to our hotel, we turned on the set in our hotel room and learned how terrible the shooting had been. For the next many hours we talked about it, the constant news of violence and hatred that has exploded in our nation, and asked ourselves what could possibly be done to stem the carnage.

After delivering my “if I were President and Congress” ideas about gun control, which both of us knew would never go anywhere, despite its absolute common sense (common if you are me anyway), our talk turned to the people, the angry people, the people shouting “lock her up” at Trump rallies, the people calling those people racists and idiots, and on and on.

We quieted down after a while and talk turned back to the reason we came to Michigan. My cousin Steve had died. His memorial was Sunday at a “Humanistic Jewish” synagogue. My sister and I were so impressed by the values you could see displayed throughout the temple, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, speaking out for justice, caring for refugees, and, very if not most importantly, caring for each other, being companions along the way through joys, heartbreaks, and the everyday mundane stuff of living. This was a community.

I’m blessed to be part of such a community. I call myself a Jewbyterian, attending the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, a community much like the Humanist Jews in Michigan, with one difference being that much of my Presbyterian community’s inspiration for how we live and love is based on the teachings of Jesus as well as the prophets of the Torah.

I also own a shop that sells books, toys, and fair-trade gifts in San Mateo California, which has created another strong and wonderful community of people. I’m also a County Commissioner, recently realizing how strong and loving the community of people who work in and around government can be.

My sister and husband and their son and daughter just moved to Florida, and one of the things my sister lamented about during our time in Michigan was how they haven’t yet found a community. And that brings me back to Michigan and Squirrel Hill Pennsylvania, the shooting, and what the heck is going on in this country. And that brought me back to something I’ve learned about in my commission work. Isolation.

Our commission is now studying the results of a survey we took of LGBTQ people in our county, and found that nearly half of the people scored high on a social isolation scale. There is, in fact, an epidemic of social isolation in our country today. According to a nationwide survey by Cigna, nearly half of Americans are very lonely. That number has doubled in the last decade. According to the study, social media is NOT the problem. People working too much or not enough are the most likely to be the loneliest, with those working the most being isolated from family, friends and community-oriented connections.

Putting aside my common sense approach to gun control, I decided after hours of watching the coverage of the shootings, pipe bombs, and the wildly enthusiastic attendees at Trump rallies, that I wanted to spend some time thinking about, talking about, learning about, and then doing something about social isolation. Why are people so excited, so fired up, so enthusiastic at these Trump rallies? Perhaps it is because they haven’t felt like there was an outlet for how they were feeling about their lives and the world and at these gatherings, surrounded by cheering fans, they feel a sense of community. The message from President Trump is certainly clear, that those who wildly cheer for HIM are THE people who make American great, and they have to come together to fight against all THE OTHER people who are trying to, in his mind, destroy it.

What makes my sister the angriest about his rhetoric is that she knows, without a doubt, that she is “the other” about whom he speaks, a Jewish liberal, who weeps for the refugees, wants to help those who have the least, recognizes the incredible blessings we have being born in America, with gratitude to our great grandparents who fled the shores of their homelands for a better life, or perhaps, just to stay alive in the face of pogroms (slaughters) or genocide. And, it was just such a group of people that the gunman in Pennsylvania targeted.

My sister is right to be angry and I also know that instead of hunkering down with her anger she will go out and find a community in her new home, if she weaves together the incredibly diverse tapestry of experiences that has made up her life and finds people who share those threads. She’s committed to doing that, and being retired, has the time to make it a priority.

What about the rest of the nearly 50% of the people in America who don’t have community. That’s where business, government, non-profit organizations, and we the people come in.

First, we should recognize the reality of our social isolation and admit that it is one of the causes of the anger and violence we are seeing.

Next, we should demand that the situation change. People working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, or have to spend hours each day commuting because they can’t afford to live near where they work, especially those who have families, don’t have time or energy to participate in communities. Everyone who is in the business of employing people needs to step back and recognize that making people, or allowing people, to work that many hours, or not paying a living wage, is bad for business, bad for people, and bad for the country. Striving for a healthy work / life balance has been in vogue in major corporations for quite a while and it needs to be taken more seriously by them and all of those who have control over the lives of employees.

Simultaneously, those of us who are part of strong communities, whether they be churches, synagogues, mosques, bowling leagues, knitters, music lovers, civic service leagues, pinball enthusiasts, model train collectors, all of us who do have strong communities need to get out there and evangelize. We need to let everyone know that there are places where they can fit in, that want them, that would treasure them. My Presbyterian brothers and sisters get nervous about the idea of evangelizing but my message to them is that we are not trying to “save” people by introducing them to Jesus (this says the Jew in the pew). No, we are trying to share the blessings of an incredible group of people who care passionately about the world and care passionately about each other, and there’s enough room in our lives for you, and you, and you and you and you. No, we’re not so inclusive that someone can start shouting “lock her up” if someone in the congregation mentions Secretary Clinton’s name, or say that LGBTQ people should go to hell, but we are welcoming enough that we can have some kickass conversations about what to do about the “caravan” and debate the causes of mass migration, the death penalty, and yes, gun control policy.

Finally, it is up to each person to ask himself or herself whether or not he or she has a community, and if not, if he or she wants one. Is there a group of people you get together with once a month, that isn’t from work or directly related to you? If not, you may just be socially isolated. There’s a wonderful new book from Workman Publishing called “Belong” that provides a roadmap to helping you find one of your potential tribes. Putting yourself out there and trying to connect with others can be incredibly fraught. This raging introvert can tell you that without a single doubt. But the benefits of being part of a community far outweigh the discomfort of finding one.

This is a national health and security emergency and should be a national policy priority. I truly believe, and the social science is telling us, that social isolation is bad for individuals, bad for communities, and bad for our country. Unlike problems that seem intractable, this is one I believe each of us can do something about, and by doing so, I believe the giant chasm that seems to divide us will begin to shrink.

Stop by our bookstore in San Mateo Monday through Saturday and be part of that community. Come to our LGBTQ Commission meetings the first Tuesday of every month at the San Mateo LGBTQ Center on El Camino Real. Check out a Sunday worship service at First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto at 10:30am. Google something you’re passionate about and see if there’s a meetup in your neighborhood. Tell your employee to get out of the office and take the weekend completely off, don’t check email, turn off voicemail. Turn off the TV. Breathe.

Find community.

4 thoughts on “Isolation Versus Community

  1. I have been attending Toastmasters for this reason. I feel socially isolated in the most “connected” location on the planet. Yes! This speaks to my heart! I have reached out on to find friends only to find others who are living in fear of socializing with others. Community is crucial to our wellbeing and mental health. Yesterday, I hired an uber to take me to my dentist follow up appointment. I remember the days of visiting next door neighbors with muffins and coffee for game night. I am 50 and I continue to reach out and meet others who are also socially isolated. Just recently I placed a post on nextdoor offering “craft day” along with complimentary pizza. I had many that said they would attend but only two showed up and they just wanted to meet not eat pizza or craft. The older you become the harder it seems to be to connect to others. I am not giving up.

  2. As a fellow Presbyterian (non-Jewish), I’m glad you found a church home. I lived and received First Communion in Palo Alto and my first home was in Menlo Park. Even though I’ve lived in Colorado for over 30 years, the Bay Area always feels like home. Guess I’m saying people AND places matter.

    • Thank you! Yesterday we hosted a Peace and Social Justice Craft and Information Fair after worship and had a lot of people from the community, some of who hadn’t known about our congregation’s mission and history. One person said that “this is exactly what churches need to be doing!”
      Last evening we spent time with a friend who travels the country before each election getting to know people in “red” and “swing” states to try to learn about the key issues / emotions driving folks. This year she got to hear two gatherings of “evangelicals on the bus” who are traveling the country sharing their view of what the bible tells them. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly… feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, taking in the stranger (including migrants) all were top of the list. So…. liberal Presbyterians, fired-up evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics…. lots of people who want to make the world a little bit or a lot better. Community!!!!

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