What Thanksgiving Tells Us About America, Community, Loneliness and God
Thanksgiving tells us a lot about America, about our yearning for community and connection, about loneliness and about God.
Loneliness destroys us in the same way that bullets and poverty destroy us. It eats away at our spiritual well-being. It eviscerates our sense of wholeness.
In fact, loneliness kills. “O chevruta, o mituta,” it says in the Talmud (Taanit 23a): Either companionship or death. And the other great religious traditions agree.
No human being is capable of living an atomized life. We live by community; otherwise, we live badly, or not at all.
But now the puzzle: Americans seem to be choosing to condemn themselves to the hell of loneliness. As David Brooks recently pointed out in the New York Times, the number of Americans who are living alone has risen from 9 percent in 1950 to 28 percent today. This latter number is shocking; that so many choose a solitary life is seemingly contrary to experience, instinct and good sense.
There are a number of reasons why this is so. A major one is that advanced democratic societies are necessarily untidy and uncomfortable affairs that dissolve traditional bonds of family and community; and what is generally true is particularly the case in difficult economic times.
Another reason is that technology isolates us, and not just in our leisure hours. For the first time in the modern era, many of us — even if we are employed by large companies — can use technology to do our work in isolation, and we are often encouraged to do so.
And, of course, some of the founding myths of American culture — the lone cowboy of the American west, taciturn and heroic — romanticize the virtues of the independent, solitary hero.
Stripped of community and companionship, Americans have created substitutes in order to cope. These replacement mechanisms may be unfulfilling, but they serve a purpose as we try to fill the void in our lives. Our obsession with celebrity, hardly a new phenomenon but one that has now reached unheard of dimensions, can perhaps be explained in this way. Lacking real relationships, we embrace pseudo-relationships with the rich, famous and beautiful, devouring every detail about them that the media can provide. And then, of course, we use Facebook and text messages to connect with hundreds of friends; these connections have positive dimensions to be sure, but a “friend” in this context is often no more than a passing acquaintance.
But now the good news: Our innate desire to belong, rooted in the human condition, resists society’s effort to isolate us. We fight back, sometimes without knowing it. Even in today’s harsh climate, when so many of us drift without an anchor, we gravitate toward real-life, face-to-face, tactile communities and to family above all — the fundamental unit of the human tribe.
And never more so than at Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving, Americans are on the move, finding their way back to parents and cousins and elderly aunts. We crave the comfort and familiarity of community, acknowledging, for a moment at least, that in the lonely dark of our homes and apartments, we feel defenseless against the beasts of modern life.
Of course, once we get there, we confront the aggravations and pettiness that family and community bring. We groan at the jokes and stories too often told and the sibling rivalries still unresolved. Living alone may be impossible, but living together is not the easiest thing either.
Still, on balance, we always find solace in the support that our extended families bring.
What does this have to do with religion? Quite a bit, actually, and on Thanksgiving we all sense it. Even the most secular families are inclined to say some kind of a Thanksgiving prayer, acknowledging the holiness of our collective effort to hold each other up and provide for each other in times of need.
Religion at its best affirms the ties of family and community, investing family celebrations with meaning and structuring family life with ritual and rules of conduct. Communities can exist without religion and God; but the most satisfying communities are those that draw on the traditions and ceremonies that religion provide. And religion at its best is not about bricks, budgets, or numbers, but about fostering sacred community among vulnerable human beings who yearn for connection.
Thanksgiving has a special hold on us, and we should rejoice in its blessings. And we should remember what it teaches us: our deep and profound need for intimacy and belonging.