Loneliness is killing us. Ben Sasse’s “Them” addresses a growing health crisis today—loneliness—and the effect of loneliness on individual and communal health, as well as contemporary politics.
We all know that smoking can kill you. It turns out, loneliness can too.
In his 2018 book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse unpacks what he calls “our loneliness epidemic,” making a compelling case for just how lonely Americans are and the toll it’s taking on us.
“Studies suggest,” he writes, “that one lonely day exacts roughly the same toll on the body as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.” And “among epidemiologists, psychiatrists, public-health officials, and social scientists, there is a growing consensus that the number one health crisis in America right now is not cancer, not obesity, and not heart disease—it’s loneliness.”
And as America ages, this problem is “only going to get worse.”
Sasse talks a lot about what he calls the “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling” (a line he borrows from Sports Illustrated). His dad was a high-school football and basketball coach in his small hometown in Nebraska, and, the way he tells it, that is a feeling anyone would notice lacking after its loss. His childhood in small-town Nebraska was marked by Friday night basketball games, intense football rivalries, regular team dinners, church potlucks, rotary club fundraisers—and the list goes on. What he—his family, his neighbors—didn’t have was loneliness, isolation. They knew, and were known by, each other.
He worries, though, that most of us will spend much of our lives without that “hometown-gym” feeling. We’ve become nomads, moving from town to town, chasing education, careers, and upward mobility. We’re less rooted, more isolated, and lonelier than ever before.
But why does a U.S. senator care so much about loneliness? It may be a health risk, as he points out, but what does it have to do with the politics? Loneliness, Sasses argues, leads to meaninglessness—there’s no one to live life with or for—and this, in turn, breeds a kind of fear. And this fear, finally, is disastrous for political life.
We’re afraid of being forgotten. We’re afraid of being out-paced by an ever-evolving economy. We’re afraid of facing old age without a companion or children to take care of us. We’re afraid of dying alone. Sasse tells a curious story of a homeless population’s worry that there wouldn’t be a place for them to be buried when they died. Even in death they remained homeless, anonymous, forgotten. (Happily, a local mission purchased a plot for the homeless and planted a memorial garden there to address this growing concern.)
But these are long-term worries—who will take care of me and where will I be buried—and we tend to want to distract ourselves with short-term problems instead. Sasses uses the example of urban combat training, where there’s “a well-documented tendency to shift our focus from a distant but important target to a less important but closer target . . . even if it’s less of a threat. We want to knock down the easier stuff first.”
That “easier target,” Sasse says, is each other. Ignoring the long-term but underlying issue of loneliness and anonymity, we identify nearer threats: my neighbors whom I don’t know but with whom I disagree—and by attacking them I forge thin but comforting “bonds” with folks on my “side.”
The rise of “anti-tribes” and “politainment” is a symptom of our loneliness and fear. We want—we need—to belong to something, “to be part of a tribe, to have roots. That desire will never be stamped out of the human heart. What it means, though, is that when healthy forms of belonging vanish, people will turn to more troubling forms.”
We have all fallen prey to the game of us-versus-them; we have all been “willing to accept cheap, distant anti-tribes when, in reality, only hard-built tribes of blood, sweat, and tears can fulfill us.” No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we have most of our news filtered for us, hearing and seeing only what we want to. This isn’t necessarily because we’re prideful or selfish (though we are). It’s that “the path of least resistance is confirmation.”
As Sasse puts it, “we can’t start from square one every day.” Instead, our biases are daily shored up, our suspicions confirmed, and we go on hating each other.
Despite all of this, Sasse remains hopeful. He thinks there’s a way forward for America—because America is not just a nation, it’s an idea. Our commitment to the universal dignity of every human person is a bulwark against demise. Our history of civil society, neighborliness, and voluntary association gives us an example to remember. Ours is a republic, as Benjamin Franklin reminds us, if we can keep it.
He offers some suggestions: reengage the great minds of the American tradition. As Sasse puts it, “Become Americans again.” Learn what freedom of speech actually means, not what college campuses say it does. Look to George Washington as an example of humility. Relearn (or maybe learn for the first time) what James Madison had in mind when he drafted the Constitution.
Another suggestion: unplug. Embrace the real over the virtual. “The other people in the comment section don’t love you and never will; your spouse and kids do and always will.”
His final two suggestions are more nuanced and more surprising: “buy a cemetery plot” and “be a smarter nomad.” He admits and accepts that we are unlikely to die in the same town where we were born. Most of us will move towns or cities multiple times throughout the course of our lives, losing friends and communities along the way. This is life today, and it’s hard to imagine it being different for most of us. We have to put food on the table and pay for our kids to go to college. That likely requires some unfortunate compromises—but it benefits no one to be ideological with regard to place, sacrificing good opportunities at the expense of your family’s well-being.
But, in light of this, have an eye towards settling. He relays a story about shopping for a cemetery plot with his wife. This purchase gives you a final location, a place where you know you will end up—and, perhaps more importantly, a place where friends and loved ones know that you will end up. A cemetery plot puts some limits, some bounds on our frequently fluctuating lives.
As for being “smarter nomads,” he pokes around at a few ideas—the sharing economy, tiny houses, zip cars. He suggests a “third way” for the ultra-mobile, which keeps a home base, suggesting that “new technologies, and a sharing-heavy economy that takes advantage of them, will make it possible for people to respond to the demands of a more mobile world without surrendering an anchor, one particular and enduring place they can invest in and call home.”
As someone rooted and skeptical of the ultra-mobile, this strikes me as a bit optimistic. Nevertheless, it is creative thinking for a shifting economy and shifting society. While I agree, as I say above, that we should not be ideological with regard to place, balancing opportunity and mobility against stability and place is a tricky equation. After his elegy for community, Sasse is perhaps a bit too accepting of ultra-mobility by leaning a bit too optimistically on the “sharing economy.”
Regardless, smarter nomads—and anyone, for that matter—will do well to be creative about how to break outside of anti-tribes and form real bonds of affection. The Senator is clear that he does not recommend taking up smoking to expel loneliness. But if we are to save ourselves, our friends and neighbors from the loneliness epidemic, we will have to invest in creating “tribes” where we can know and be known, love and be loved. As he says, these tribes are hard-won, through blood, sweat, and tears.
Sasse leaves you believing that “the American idea can be renewed.” And while the government will have a role in that, it’s mostly up to us, the “little platoons” of civil society where we can find something like the “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling”—whether that feeling comes from a gym or a church or a school, Grandma’s kitchen, or a friend’s back patio. We need to find and celebrate these loci of civil society.