Our Longing for Belonging: Only Half the Human Condition

We don’t just need time with other people; we also need time alone.

Posted Feb 15, 2020

Remarking on all the people who choose to live alone, David Brooks concedes that if they are economically privileged, maybe “this sort of works.” Really, though, he’s not convinced. He feels sorry for those who are going solo, insisting that:

“…a lingering sadness lurks, an awareness that life is emotionally vacant when family and close friends aren’t physically present…”

Those are the words of a man who cannot fathom what it means to cherish a place of your own. He doesn’t understand all the people who savor the time they have to themselves. Or those for whom solitude is not just something they savor, it is something they need, the way people need food to eat and air to breathe.

David Brooks sees solitude as emptiness, when for many of us, it is our route to fulness and depth, creativity and equanimity. Sadness doesn’t “lurk” in the homes of our own; it is joy that has the run of the place—or whatever emotion suits our mood and our pursuits.

Brooks wrote about solo dwellers in his cover story on the nuclear family for the March 2020 issue of Atlantic magazine. In it, he argues that the decline of the nuclear family has left people isolated and traumatized and in search of new ways of creating family and community. It is an article that is likely to launch a thousand think pieces. Because I wrote a whole book on alternatives to nuclear family living, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, the Atlantic invited me to discuss their cover story with them. You can find that interview here. As you will see, though, I have a lot more to say.

The Longing for Belonging

David Brooks is troubled by all the people living alone. And all the single people, even if they don’t live alone. And the single-parent families. He sees all the single people as evidence for the theme of his article, the “crumbling” of the nuclear family and the “catastrophe” that so many have experienced as a result.

“In many sectors of society,” Brooks says, “nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.” (Chaotic families?) His fretting over the presumed consequences of the demise of nuclear family living is littered with the language of chaos, trauma, wreckage, loneliness, isolation, pestilence, and suffering. For example: “Over the past several decades, the decline of the nuclear family has created an epidemic of trauma.”

But he sees hope, too. We don’t all have to end up the way he thinks we are now: isolated, lonely, and despondent. Brooks realizes that Americans are creating new ways of forging fulfilling relationships with other people that recreate the belongingness that has been lost.

Some people, he notes, are drawn to the extended family arrangements of yore that he writes about so nostalgically. Many others are creating their own kinds of families. The families we choose, as scholars of queer kinship have been telling us for a very long time, are the truly extended families. They extend beyond the bonds of blood and marriage and adoption, to, as Brooks acknowledges, “the people who will show up for you no matter what.”

Here, I must stop to applaud. David Brooks, who for so long has been smitten with married people and their families, is now acknowledging and even praising all the people who are important to us, whoever they are.

He even started “Weave: The Social Fabric Project,” in order “to support and draw attention to people and organizations around the country who are building community.” One thing he particularly admires about the Weavers is that they “provide the kind of care to nonkin that many of us provide only to kin.”

After describing examples of the kinds of ways people are creating togetherness in this post-nuclear family landscape, Brooks ends with the promise and the path he recommends to all of us:

“…a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin.

“It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”

Many people really do feel that they do not have as much togetherness as they would like, or the kinds of deep, meaningful human bonds that soothe their souls. What David Brooks has to say will resonate with them.

The longing for belonging, though, is only half the human condition. Or some part that is less than the whole. The other part is our wish for some time to ourselves, and for spaces we can call our own. We want the autonomy and the privacy and the flourishing that transpires beyond the gaze of other people, however loving and well-intentioned those people may be.

When time alone and time together are both potentially available, I think we all want some of each. The preferred proportions differ vastly from person to person. In the time I spent traveling around the country and researching How We Live Now, I never found anyone who wanted to spend all their time with other people or all their time alone.

The Solace and Sustenance of Solitude

The irony of David Brooks’ dismal view of single people and people who live alone is that his understandings are exactly wrong. Research is not on his side. In fact, the people he pities are on the leading edge of the creation of the kinds of connections and caring that he so values.

Consider, for example, his view of people who live alone. He thinks that “the market wants us to live alone…because “that way we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted, able to devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs.” Living in a place of our own, he adds, leaves us “unencumbered by family commitments.”

Some employers see their single employees that way. They think single people, particularly those who live alone, have no roots. If someone needs to be transferred to a different town, let it be them. Maybe those employers also think that every person who lives alone cares more about work than anything else.

Single people living alone, though, are often the life of their cities and towns. They participate in more public events and civic organizations, take more music and art classes, go out to dinner more often, and participate in more informal social activities than people who are married or live with others. Some create very deep roots in the place where they live.

Single people, whether they live alone or with others, typically have more friends than married people do. They also do more to tend to the people in their lives. They are more likely to help, encourage, and socialize with their friends and neighbors. They are also more likely to advise, support, visit, and stay in touch with their siblings and parents.

David Brooks wants us to be there for one another. Single people already are.

When couples move in together or marry, they become more insular. They have less contact with their parents and spend less time with their friends. Single people don’t do that. Single people are also more likely than their married siblings to be there for their aging parents as they need more help.

Brooks is in awe of the Weavers who “provide the kind of care to nonkin that many of us provide only to kin.” Single people are already doing more than their share of that, too. When other people need the kind of sustained caregiving that can go on for months, it is single people who are more likely to step up and provide it than people who are married.

But aren’t solo dwellers isolated and lonely? Brooks seems to think so. Maybe that’s because of a bizarre hole in his story. Among the 9,200 words in his essay on modern life, one word was entirely missing: Internet. When single people are home alone, they are not isolated; they are connected to the whole, wide world.

Online communications and advanced communication technologies enable people who live alone (and everyone else) to maintain the ties with the people they already know, and to cultivate new bonds that sometimes make the leap from virtual life to real life. Those connections can develop into deep and enduring friendships.

We don’t have to guess whether people who live alone are particularly lonely. We already know, from a study of more than 16,000 people, from as young as 18 to as old as 103. The authors found that when they compared people who lived alone to people who lived with others—focusing on that key aspect of their living arrangement and not letting other factors muddy the picture—the people who lived alone were less lonely.

People who live alone and love it may need less time with other people to keep loneliness at bay. But I think there is another important psychological dynamic, too. For introverts especially, having time to themselves is essential. It is sustaining and rejuvenating. With sufficient alone time, they are better able to go out and connect with other people in meaningful ways. They need time at their small tables if they are to venture forth and thrive at the big ones.

Loneliness Porn

Bridget Jones infamously quipped that as a single person, she just might end up “dying alone and found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.” That was no joke to David Brooks, who recounted the tale of the man who “died alone and rotted in his Queens apartment for so long that by the time police found him, his body was unrecognizable.”

That’s loneliness porn. (Here’s a less caricatured account of that man’s life.) Other similarly salacious storylines are also making the rounds. Have you heard that Americans have frighteningly fewer confidants than they had in the not-so-distant past? Almost everyone has. But it’s not true. Have you heard the agitated claims that we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness? That, too, is doubtful.

Big social changes, including the ones Brooks has described, really are happening. There are many more single-parent families, more single people, and more people living alone in this century than there were in the last. That is making people nervous. Maybe they shouldn’t be. In many important ways, it is the people who never did fit comfortably into nuclear family households who are leading the way to a new and more imaginatively connected society. It will be a society that saves a place for solitude as well as sociability, thereby honoring more than just half of the human condition.