I grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s in a home without electricity, radio, TV, any kind of telephone, much less a smart one. We received no newspapers, magazines or even what today we call junk mail. We had only a handful of books.
Lacking a car or truck, we could not even get to church on a regular basis, though it was just seven miles away. We lived in an insular world of small farms in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Yet, although poor in material goods, we were rich in relationships, and as Robert Hall wrote in his book, “This Land of Strangers,” “the truth is, relationships are the most valuable and value-creating resource of any society. They are our lifelines to survive, grow and thrive.”
Everything about our isolated lives then invited us to form relationships. We lived in a small log cabin, with only two rooms: kitchen and dining area, and a large bedroom. As our family grew to five sons, Dad added another bedroom about the same size.
Night found all of us around our kitchen table with a single kerosene lamp for light. So what did we do? We talked, did homework, and Mom and Dad read to us and regaled us with tales of times past. We were, to use today’s word, bonding, forming relationships that would endure.
Our extended families lived nearby. If we needed a horse or a farm implement, we borrowed one from one of the grandparents or uncles. We visited all the time. When we were able to get to Mass on Sunday, everyone tarried afterward in fellowship, in no hurry to get home.
When a woman had to go to the hospital, a neighbor dropped by to help cook. When a farmer was sick, neighbors did his chores until he got well. At harvest time, the men gathered to thrash the wheat on each farm. We were a community.
Ironic then that with all the ubiquity of media today, we are poorer in relationships. David Brooks, a favorite New York Times columnist, writes that the quality of our relationships has been declining for decades. As a result, the percentage of Americans who are lonely has increased from 20 percent in the 1980s to 40 percent today. Depression rates have increased tenfold since 1960.
Smartphones and social media apparently do not help. Jean Twenge wrote in The Atlantic last year (“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”) that heavy use increases teenagers’ unhappiness and makes them less likely to form relationships and more likely to be depressed.
The unfulfilled hunger for relationships exists among all generations, especially the elderly. I walk around my neighborhood daily and chat with people on the street.
But my wife, missing relationships with other women, agreed to meet weekly with Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on the door offering to instruct her in the Scriptures, although she has made it clear to them that she has no intention of converting to their faith. They have been doing this for years.
Similarly, she looks forward to talking via phone with her cousin Beverly, who lives in North Carolina and visited our home only once decades ago. They have been in contact ever since. Beverly, 92, is the only surviving member of her family. It is a way to revisit in memory those no longer here.
I do not know how to reverse the social decline we are experiencing. But I do know that loving our neighbor as our self is all about relationships. If we do not have them, we are poor indeed.
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