Bowling: Alone and Segregated

Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone was published in 2000.  In it he documented how Americans were increasingly becoming an isolated people, disconnecting themselves from friends, family, civic groups, religious affiliations etc.  It would seem that if Americans value choice among all other values and we equate choice with true freedom, then we are not only the freest people on the planet but we are choosing to be alone.  If you have developed a habit of eating cold pizza while standing over your sink pondering what to do with the rest of your life you’re validating Putnam’s research.

Then again there is the recent work done by Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, and Dante Chinni and James Gimpel, Our Patchwork Nation.  These two books suggest that we are not becoming Lone Rangers, we are becoming Segregated Rangers.  According to these authors Americans are becoming more isolated but they are doing so in communities. We are intentionally creating sub-cultures identified by specific socio-economic, political and religious distinctives.  We want to live, work, play and worship with people just like us and do so in communities where our contact with those “other people”, variously defined, is reduced to a minimum.

So what’s the point?  Well, I have recently had more alone time than normal while also being among some people who are not part of my normal everyday interaction and I have thought about how other people play such a critical role in helping us interpret our life’s story.  Left to interpret my life by myself I am often puzzled and bewildered by the disconnected and seemingly chaotic nature of what life brings to me each day.  Sometimes life seems to make sense and then circumstances change, people change, change happens and I am forced to re-calculate and re-evaluate my sense of things.  I confess that this can become a very tedious and tiring exercise…if I am the only person in the story.

I realize that when it comes to interpreting my life and finding the meaning in it, neither of the two options I listed above are healthy options.  Using myself as the only reference point for understanding my life is the path to a solipsistic existence where I don’t just have a story but I become the story where everyone else becomes a minor player just waiting for me to give them their que to enter the scene.  When I join a segregated community of people whose only real value is that they look and think just like me is to make exactly the same mistake with the only difference being that I have helped to form a self-centered community that reinforces my own biases.

In both cases I have successfully protected myself from the one thing that makes interpreting life possible, personal transformation.  If  I want to know how and where my life has meaning I will need to look for those places where I am being transformed, not where life is changing around me but where I am being changed.  The places where that happens is most often the places where I risk opening myself up to life and to others, others not like me, others who are allowed to speak into my life.

What I have tried to describe is the life I think Jesus has called me to live and I hope I have described the nature of what the church is supposed to be as well.  Following Jesus is an challenging life of trust, faith and hope where we continually open ourselves up to the places and the people where God places us.  That’s where the transformation happens, that’s where the meaning is found.  If you want to know what your life means you can’t spend it protecting yourself.

Dietrich Bonhoffer said it this way, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

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