Senator Sasse on Building Community [Book Review]
Senator Ben Sasse thinks there is one thing that plagues our nation more than anything else: loneliness. In his latest book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How To Heal – he explains:
There are a variety of causes for this loneliness, and those causes have paradoxically brought us both good and bad. Sasse explains that “the massive economic disruption that we entered a couple of decades ago and will be navigating for decades to come is depriving us psychologically and spiritually at the same time that it’s enriching us materially.”
He further writes that:
the same technology that has liberated us from so much inconvenience and drudgery has also unmoored us from the things that anchor our identities. The revolution that has given tens of millions of Americans the opportunity to live like historic royalty has also outpaced our ability to figure out what community, friendships, and relationships should look like in the modern world.
Senator Sasse believes that we will only flourish as American citizens if we embrace the messy work of connecting deeply with the people all around us, in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, etc. He notes that “social scientists have identified four primary drivers of human happiness, which we can put into in the form of four questions:
1. Do you have family you love, and who love you?
2. Do you have friends you trust and confide in?
3. Do you have work that matters – callings that benefit your neighbors?
4. Do you have a worldview that can make sense of suffering and death?”
Sasse explains that “a central component to a contented life is ‘rootedness’ – having a sense of community.” But he warns that our tech habits are often directly at odds with this sense of rootedness. He writes, “we undermine these roots every day by scrolling through feeds [on social media], trying to throw ourselves into a different time and place, because maybe things are better there.” As I’m sure you’ve experienced firsthand if you’ve spent a lot of time online, “the end result is aching loneliness.”
I suspect historians will look back at the early twenty-first century and wonder why humans were so willing, often to the point of desperation, to confide our deepest secrets, desires, and fears to machines and inanimate objects, while retreating from actual flesh-and-blood people.
Sasse bluntly states that “when we prioritize ‘news’ from afar, we’re saying that our distant-but-shallow communities are more important than our small-but-deep flesh-and-blood ones.” He asks us to reorder our priorities by remembering that “we live richer, more fulfilled lives when we’re directing ourselves to the right people.”
Of course, the problem with community is that it is really hard work to live alongside other people who are different from us and who think differently than we do. And yet the beauty of building relationships with our neighbors (literally and metaphorically) is that we can experience conversations that change us. Sasse writes that “neighbors see today’s conversation not as the last discussion we’ll ever have, but as a precursor to tomorrow’s. We can and will visit again. We can continue talking, and listening. We can be open to future persuasion – and to being persuaded. We need not win everything by force, and we need not win everything right now.” There is unpredictability inherent to this vision of community and maybe even some degree of risk, but Sasse writes, “I like the idea of investing in a future that isn’t guaranteed.”
Sasse’s preference for persuasive conversation over political coercion is rooted in his understanding of the difference between the political and the civic. He explains that “one of the core problems with our public life together is that we’re constantly failing to distinguish between politics and civics. Politics is about the use of power – how it is acquired and who wields it. Civics is about who we are as a people.” Sasse goes on to stress that while “obviously, politics matters… civics matters more.” He elaborates that “politics is simply the bare-bones instrument we use to protect the freedom to live lives of purpose, service and love. But if we collapse civics and politics together…then we ensure that politics squeezes out community. We give priority to compulsion over friendship, and coerced uniformity over genuine diversity.” Sasse writes that “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships is to have a political philosophy that emphasizes constraint,” and in practice means learning to recognize our own biases, and seeking to grow through the conversations we have with the people around us.
At the end of the day, Senator Sasse seeks to remind us that “we find lives of meaning and purposes at and near home.” This means that “the District of Columbia is not the center of American life: it exists to maintain a framework of ordered liberty – so that your city or town, the place where you live, can be the center of the world.” Ultimately, all the ingredients for the good life are found in the particular relationships that make us who we are: our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our colleagues.
Parental engagement is a main component of our work here at Demme Learning. In an earlier blog series, we looked at how parents can help their kids grow into responsible citizens who are engaged in civic life.
Sasse writes at length about the challenges that tech and social media pose for us as citizens. But it isn’t just us adults who struggle to figure out the proper role of tech in our lives: our kids are struggling too. One tremendous resource for families is Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family, which I recently reviewed.