America the Lonely

My Story

No sooner had I begun to recognize my own need for community, and the role that relationship and connection would have to play in my healing, than I was served up an opportunity to walk right back into my former life as a student of social capital.

In the spring of 2018 I traveled to Cambridge, MA to celebrate the retirement from Harvard of my longtime mentor, Robert Putnam, who in the year 2000 wrote the book, Bowling Alone. The symposium was a wonderful overview of his incredible contributions to our understanding of the concept of social capital—a concept that he didn’t exactly invent, but has certainly defined, studied, explored, and popularized more than any other scholar to date.

Briefly, social capital is the idea that relationships, social networks, and connections have value. That value is often personal—showing up in the form of social support, access to knowledge, and connections to things like job opportunities. But that value is also societal—the trust and reciprocity inherent in dense social networks undergird well-functioning societies and, quite literally, make democracy work. Social capital can take the form of “bonding,” when we connect with people like us, or “bridging,” when we connect with unlike others. Both are vital threads in the social fabric.

The amazing thing about social capital is that it is usually formed in the most pedestrian of ways (Putnam’s first groundbreaking study of social capital centered around choral societies in Italy) but is vital for making the most complex social systems work (localities in Italy that had the highest participation in choral societies had the highest functioning municipal governments). Through decades of masterful scholarship, Putnam has been able to show that this is a causal relationship, not just a correlation. Forged over beers at the bowling alley, nurtured through neighborly gestures of support and reciprocity, and employed to its highest good as the glue that holds societies together—social capital is democracy’s secret sauce.

I had worked on a book with Putnam 10 years ago—about religious communities in America—before setting aside my writing career and joining the Peace Corps. Since coming home from Jordan I had heard he was working on a new book, and was excited to learn more about it. When I was in Cambridge we got to talking, and within a matter of weeks I was being offered the opportunity to join him as a co-author. We’re now writing a book about…you guessed it! Community. Specifically, a broad look at social, economic, and political trends in America over the course of the 20th century, and their implications for our culture of disconnection.

It had been a long time since I dove into thinking about community as-such. Certainly a long time since I had read any books about it. I’d been too busy reading about spirit animals and essential oils, remember? But in many ways, returning to my longtime fascination with social capital felt like returning to water after a long trip through the desert.

You may remember that the main point of Bowling Alone was to document what had been a half-century long decline in social capital in America (as measured in myriad different ways). And to warn that this decline represents a worrisome erosion of what we know is an essential foundation for functioning democracies. The good news is that in the almost 20 years since the publication of Bowling Alone, we’ve all become a lot more aware of the need for and value of community, connection, and social capital. But the bad news is that we haven’t done much to reverse their decline. Essentially, the trends Putnam identified in the year 2000 have continued unabated for two decades more. And we’re now seeing the bitter harvest of this dearth of connection splashed across the headlines every day.

As I began to look again at the literature on social capital, and to look around at what’s going on in our country today, the thoughts and feelings I was having about the next phase of my healing journey suddenly collided with scholarly insights about how we’ve gotten into such dire straits as a nation. My basic realization was this: if we don’t make a deliberate effort to reinvest in connection, and rebuild our stock of social capital, we will never experience healing—on a personal level or a societal level.

It dawned on me that after so many years of studying the decline of social capital, and in embarking upon yet another writing project on this subject, I simply can no longer ignore my own complicity in the problem. I don’t know my neighbors. I don’t attend PTO meetings at my daughter’s school (Do they even call it a PTO anymore?). I’ve had friends over for dinner once in the past year. And I certainly don’t belong to any clubs, bowling leagues, or choral societies. And if I had to actually map out my own social support network, things would look frighteningly thin. I am part of a generation that has invested far less in creating social capital than my mother’s, who invested far less in it than her mother’s. And this is not only a problem for America, it is a problem for me.

Could the source of our national sickness and my own ongoing sense of incompleteness be one and the same? And could the solution be–if not simpler, then far more elemental–than we think?

In contemplating this question, the concept for Project Reconnect was born.