This weekend I helped chaperone an end-of-year 6th grade band outing to Schlitterbahn. We got everyone loaded onto the buses, to the park in one piece, set up in our central location, divided into their groups, went over the rules one more time, and then turned them loose. I hung around and chatted with some of the other adults for a while, applied my sunblock, and then went to ride some of the rides myself. I came back to eat my gluten-free lunch, chatted with the other adults some more, and took off again until it was nearing time to gather the kids in and head home. Over the course of the day, I would encounter and chat for a bit with adults or kids from our group, and then head back to whatever I was doing.
Somewhere during the course of the day, it dawned on me that I was perfectly comfortable alone in a vast crowd of people. It gave me time for my thoughts or for no thoughts if I desired to exist in the moment. I enjoyed the rides. I might find a moment when it seemed fitting to quietly pray the Jesus Prayer for a bit. But I slipped easily from interacting with others to not and back again. And as I reflected on that, I realized I could not recall a time in my life when that was not true. I’m not a loner, in that I don’t seek to separate myself from others. I enjoy being around people and doing things with them most of the time. But I have no stress if that doesn’t work out. I don’t often try very hard to make it happen.
Like many, I’ve read Putnam’s Bowling Alone and similar sociological works. I’ve recognized the truth in it on a lot of levels. I’ve come to accept that I’m shaped by a culture different from those older than me (and many roughly my age). And yet small things are still capable of surprising me. It’s true that our culture fits us like a second skin. We have an extremely hard time actually seeing our own cultural shaping rather than perceiving and sensing the world through it.
I think back on my life to when I was as young as sixth grade through eighth grade. I was always perfectly comfortable going to a movie, to the mall, to the skating rink, or Astroworld by myself. I was a bit of a flirt, so if I saw a girl or two at the skating rink, I might try to get to know them better. And I loved doing all of the above and more with friends or girls if the opportunity presented itself. But if not, I was always OK with that as well. I think of myself in my early twenties. I loved to hit various dance clubs with friends. But if I wanted to dance and nobody was available at the moment, I often went to my favorite clubs by myself and danced by myself in the middle of the crowd. It’s never bothered me to eat alone in public. Again, I don’t mind company. In fact, I enjoy company while eating. But it’s no sweat if I don’t have any. (Of course, as a celiac now, I have an entirely new set of issues with eating out, but they have nothing to do with being alone in a crowd.)
I look at that and I do see the ways in which it withers social capital. I do see how personal interconnections become lighter and easier to shed with all but a very few. I can see the things people decry and I can see them reflected in myself.
But how else do we live? Like many, I grew up without much in the way of extended family contact or other tribal connections. I guess we knew some neighbors. And there were some family friends. But people came into and left my sphere of interaction regularly. If I were culturally shaped in a way that required those connections, it seems to me that I could not have functioned at all. I grew up the only way I really could. I’ll confess there are problems with this, but I don’t see any easy solutions.
I do perhaps see hints of a way forward in Christianity, which holds the view that all human beings are connected and that only by deepening that connection can we truly be saved. I’ve heard it said that the most reclusive hermit among the desert fathers was still connected to and aware of all others. Rather than masters of being alone in a crowd, they were ever among a crowd even when they seemed utterly alone. However, I don’t know how to move from where I am to where they are. How do we shed our cultural skin without heading to the desert? It’s a question worth pondering.