From Loneliness to Love
In the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many Americans felt alone. Confined to their homes, people struggled to work remotely or take classes online without the in-person aid of friends, teachers, and colleagues. Religious services were streamed online; weddings were canceled or postponed. The elderly remained captive in their residences or nursing homes, barred from visiting with relatives and hugging grandkids. Hundreds of thousands of older Americans perished from the virus, while tens of thousands of children lost their parents. Funerals were held over Zoom.
Yet even before the pandemic, rates of loneliness in the United States had reached concerning levels. A study from health insurer Cigna found that 61% of Americans were considered lonely in 2019, leading researchers to declare an "epidemic of loneliness." Reports of loneliness remained high in Cigna's latest data from the end of 2021, with 58% of U.S. adults deemed lonely — including more than three-quarters of young adults aged 18 to 24.
The signs of loneliness are all around us: mass shootings by young male loners; an alarming rise in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide among teenagers — especially young girls; millions of able-bodied, working-age men out of the labor force and disconnected from civil society, as political economist Nicholas Eberstadt has detailed in these pages; and the more than 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses that occurred in 2021, which were heavily concentrated among people who suffer most from social isolation.
We all feel lonely during different seasons of our lives; it's part of the human condition. Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote that "[a]s soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves." But today's crisis of loneliness is partly self-imposed. We suffer from what Yuval Levin calls "pathologies of passivity" — a reluctance to live life "in loving commitment to others." Isolated and afraid, we seek refuge in technology, politics, work, individualism, and self-fulfillment. None of these brings us closer to the happiness, connection, and love for which we long.
Happiness cannot be found within ourselves. As philosopher Josef Pieper put it, "our desire for happiness can be satisfied precisely by such affirmation directed toward another, that is, by 'unselfish' love." The answer to humanity's yearnings for "existential fulfillment," in Pieper's words, is to build relationships of love. Such commitments, it should be said, are not easy; love requires sacrifice. It requires recognizing one's need for love, taking risks, being vulnerable, and giving up one's life for the good of the other. But it is the only path out of loneliness.
The English language contains only one word for love, but the ancient Greeks developed terms for at least four different forms, as Lewis recounted in his book The Four Loves. These include friendship (philia), affection (storge), romance (eros), and charity (agape). By taking a closer look at these institutions of love — what they are, why they have declined in our society, and how we might help them flourish again — we can come to a better understanding of the remedy for our alienation.
Lewis called friendship the "least instinctive" of the loves. But it is one that helps us not only live, but live well.
Americans' friendships in general have weakened in recent decades. As a May 2021 poll from the American Enterprise Institute's Survey Center on American Life noted, "Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support." In 1990, 33% of Americans said they had 10 or more close friends, compared to just 13% in 2021. The percentage of Americans who reported that they have a "best friend" decreased from 75% to 59% over the same period.
One explanation for the contraction of Americans' friendships is that we don't value them very much. From a young age, children are taught to prioritize achievement over relationships — a lesson that carries over into adulthood and the workplace. Research shows that we are most involved with friends in our teens, but shortly thereafter, the time we devote to friendships steadily diminishes. Americans today work longer hours and travel more for their jobs, making it difficult to find the time to form lasting friendships. Meanwhile, those who are less economically independent and live with their parents — a group that includes more than half of young men, as the AEI survey noted — tend to rely on family rather than friends for support.
Technology matters too. It can certainly help us sustain friendships over long distances, but it can also discourage us from forming deep and meaningful connections. Psychology professor Jean Twenge has found that between 2000 and 2015, the number of teenagers who spent time with their friends in person nearly every day decreased by more than 40%. These teens are members of what Twenge calls "iGen" — the post-Millennial generation that has grown up with smartphones from a young age.
Interacting through phones is an artificial form of friendship because friends, by definition, do things together. As Lewis put it in The Four Loves, "we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead." We do not form meaningful friendships by gazing at our friends through screens; it is better to "fight beside [them], read with [them], argue with [them], pray with [them]."
This is especially true for men. While the AEI survey found that friendships also waned for women, the friendship decline among men was steeper. The percentage of men with six or more close friends has dropped by half since 1990, from 55% to 27%. Today, 15% of men report having no close friends at all — up from 3% 30 years ago.
Women tend to rely more than men on their friends for emotional support, and thus they invest more time and effort in friendships. Men, by contrast, participate in activities with their friends but rarely form deeper connections; they tend to turn to their spouse (if they have one) for emotional intimacy. Single men in particular are struggling to form friendships: 21% have no close friends, compared to 12% of married men. Getting married or joining a local religious congregation can provide access to new social networks, but men also marry later in life than women and are less likely to become involved in a religious community, which can deprive them of significant sources of friendship.
Men in particular are not interested in long, intimate meetings face to face. They want to do something together, which can create the opening for more frank conversations. The nature of male friendship explains the success of the Men's Sheds movement, a program that started in Australia in the mid-1990s and has since spread to nine states in America and over 1,000 groups worldwide. Founded principally to help lonely older men, these groups meet at a shed or warehouse to cut firewood, complete woodworking projects for their community, or even just play pool and chat. Men feel more comfortable talking at the sheds, where the motto is "shoulder to shoulder" — reflecting Lewis's "side by side" remark.
Another factor behind the decline in friendship is that in America, friendship is often treated as transactional. In other words, we tend to seek friends who can do something for us.
The ancients had a different view. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle delineated three types of friendships: those focused on utility, those directed toward pleasure, and those that emphasize virtue. Friendships based on utility or pleasure, says Aristotle, have selfish motives — "[h]e who is loved in each case is not loved for himself but only insofar as he is useful or pleasant" — and are "easily dissolved" as needs and passions change. "Complete" or "perfect" friendships of virtue, on the other hand, are more "stable"; they involve "those who wish for the good things for their friends, for their friends' sake." For Aristotle, only complete friendships teach us how to pursue virtue with another. They are also the only ones that make us happy.
True friendship rests on more than utility, pleasure, political alliance, or other superficial distinctions; it aims higher. It elevates souls and instills virtue through devotion to others. "In a circle of true Friends," Lewis wrote, "each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about any one else's family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history."
True friendship is also rare, in part because building friendship takes time. As Aristotle wrote, "there is...need of the passage of time and the habits formed by living together; for as the adage has it, it is not possible for people to know each other until they have eaten together the proverbial salt." Finding such friends is certainly worth it, however, as one can tell from reading Lewis's description of the "golden sessions" of friendship:
[W]hen four or five of us after a hard day's walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?
Americans seeking more friendships might begin by thinking about what interests them, and then acting on that interest by finding a group of like-minded enthusiasts. Such groups can be organized around anything from woodworking to poker, fantasy football, or even a television show. In communities like these, people find friends from outside their normal professional and educational networks — friends who can do nothing for them except provide companionship.
Aristotle reminds us that true friendship is rare. Still, we should be open to cultivating these deeper friendships, no matter how uncommon they are or how long they take to develop.
Consulting his Greek lexicon, Lewis defines storge as "'affection, especially of parents to offspring'; but also of offspring to parents."
Affection thus originates in the family — the bedrock of loving communities. For years, the mid-20th-century ideal of the "nuclear family," in which two parents raise two or three children, dominated the narrative. Yet since then, a variety of economic, cultural, and institutional forces — falling marriage rates and a rise in divorces, declining male wages and the entrance of women into the workplace, sinking birth rates and the prevalence of nursing homes for seniors — have eroded America's family structure. Not all of these trends are negative, particularly greater economic opportunity for women. But as a result of these currents, writes David Brooks in an essay for the Atlantic, "Americans today have less family than ever before." He continues:
From 1970 to 2012, the share of households consisting of married couples with kids has been cut in half. In 1960, according to census data, just 13 percent of all households were single-person households. In 2018, that figure was 28 percent. In 1850, 75 percent of Americans older than 65 lived with relatives; by 1990, only 18 percent did.
Everyone involved suffers from the breakdown of family and familial affection. Single mothers bear the burden of being both breadwinner and caregiver, while single men struggle to find a purpose. Children of broken homes suffer psychologically, emotionally, behaviorally, academically, and in future relationships, while older Americans without families lack relatives to care for them. The wealthy have the resources to purchase the benefits that extended families used to offer, such as babysitters, tutors, coaches, and therapists; the poor and working classes are not so lucky.
After decades of familial decline, Americans today are making more of a conscious effort to form closer family connections. For example, the percentage of children living with both birth parents has begun to increase slightly in recent years. What's more, the number of Americans residing in multi-generational households has risen since the 2008 financial crisis: A record 64 million people, or 20% of the U.S. population, lived in such homes in 2016. This group included young adults living with their parents due to economic difficulties and the cost of education, but also seniors being taken care of by their adult children — combating the loneliness of both youth and old age.
There has also been an increase in what some call "forged families" — families made up of members who are not necessarily kin but who choose to live together, to love and to sacrifice for one another. At "co-housing" communities like Temescal Commons in Oakland, California, multi-generational families congregate in shared public spaces, have two communal dinners a week, babysit one another's children, and help each other through hard times. Hundreds of such co-housing communities have sprung up across the country.
Forged families can certainly contribute to the recovery of the American family, but the fact remains that many Americans have been choosing to delay the formation of their own families or forgo them altogether. The number of babies born in the United States ticked up in 2021, but in 2020, it reached its lowest point in more than four decades.
In surveys, Americans report that they want more children: Demographer Lyman Stone tells National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru that "Americans actively intend and plan to have 2 to 2.3 children on average, yet at current rates will have just 1.64." To address this disparity, Stone says we should seek to make a "more livable society for everyone" through measures such as providing cash assistance to families with young children and lowering housing and education costs.
Brooks agrees that "no recovery is likely without some government action." But he also acknowledges that "the most important shifts will be cultural, and driven by individual choices." Indeed, it may take something more radical — a "religious transformation," as Ross Douthat put it in an essay for Plough — to change our trajectory:
[H]aving a bunch of kids is the form of life most likely to force you toward kenosis, self-emptying, the experience of what it means to live entirely for someone other than yourself....[I]f that's the worldview required to make our society capable of reproducing itself again, then we're waiting not for child tax credits, better work-life balance, or more lenient car-seat laws, but for a radical conversion of our hardened modern hearts.
Of course, before one can experience the affection of children and family, one must love a partner and be loved in turn. Among today's youth, however, the sexes are having trouble pairing off. To gain a deeper understanding of this problem, we can turn to Lewis's discussion of a third form of love: eros.
At the heart of modern eros, or romance, is a paradox: People have more ways than ever to find it, but everyone has less of it. In theory, the invention of dating apps and the consequent widening of social networks should make it easier to find romantic partners, go on dates, get married, and have sex. Yet all of these activities are on the decline.
Atlantic editor Kate Julian wrote in 2018 that Americans were living through a "sex recession." Citing research from Jean Twenge and others, she described the decrease in dating and sexual activity among teens and young adults. Marriages, too, have plunged to a new low: Researchers at AEI, the Institute for Family Studies, and the Wheatley Institution reported that in 2020, the marriage rate "fell to 33 per 1,000 of the unmarried population and the total fertility rate fell to 1.64 per woman — levels never seen before in American history."
Not all of this is bad news: As rates of dating, marriage, and sex have dwindled, so have divorces and teen pregnancies. But we should not be too quick to celebrate this dip in socially negative outcomes — which has partly occurred because Americans are shirking romantic relationships, with all their blessings and burdens, in favor of activities that require less responsibility.
This risk-averse approach to eros begins at a young age. As Julian observes, parents urge teens and 20-somethings to prioritize themselves over relationships, leading their children to "[absorb] the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success." These young Americans eventually enter adulthood lacking social skills, the confidence to respectfully ask someone out on a date, or even a sense of what romantic love is. This leaves them "ill-equipped for both the miseries and the joys of adulthood." The result is a confused hookup culture — or no hookups at all.
Americans prefer to avoid public discussions of the scourge of pornography, but it is another significant factor behind the decline of dating, marriage, and sex among young adults. A 2016 study found that increased access to broadband internet accounted for at least 7% of the drop in the teen birth rate from 1999 to 2007. Greater diffusion of broadband internet may have helped teenagers — teenage girls in particular — access more information about birth control, and fewer teen pregnancies is certainly a positive outcome. But more internet connectivity also means more people can distribute and view pornographic material, giving them more reasons to avoid social interaction. Consumption of pornography is particularly harmful for men: A March 2022 report from the Survey Center on American Life found "a strong relationship between pornography use and a variety of negative social conditions and circumstances" for men, including insecurity, dissatisfaction with their personal appearance, and loneliness.
The internet doesn't replace in-person relationships, but it does provide enough incentive to eschew the risk that romance entails. As a 24-year-old man told Julian:
The internet has made it so easy to gratify basic social and sexual needs that there's far less incentive to go out into the "meatworld" and chase those things. This isn't to say that the internet can give you more satisfaction than sex or relationships, because it doesn't....[But it can] supply you with just enough satisfaction to placate those imperatives....I think it's healthy to ask yourself: "If I didn't have any of this, would I be going out more? Would I be having sex more?" For a lot of people my age, I think the answer is probably yes.
Going out on dates should be about more than just satisfying our libidos; dating, after all, is the first step toward the pursuit of loving commitment. But in today's world of online dating, romance is harder to come by than one might suspect. A decade after the advent of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, many users feel a "bad case of burnout," as Catherine Pearson recently put it in the New York Times. Constant scrolling can leave one exhausted and resentful toward others who have had better experiences, but at the same time still hopeful that the perfect match is just a few swipes away.
Dating apps do have benefits. They are an important source of community and connection, and their filtering tools can help users find compatible partners much more easily than certain in-person environments. Online dating has also helped many couples pair off and get married: A study by sociologist Michael Rosenfeld found that 39% of couples met online in 2017, compared to just 20% who met through friends.
The evidence, however, indicates that the online commodification of dating has not always lived up to its matchmaking promise. According to an analysis by an engineer of the dating app Hinge, the top 1% of men who are viewed as the most "desirable" receive more than 16% of the "likes" on the platform, while the top 10% of men receive nearly 60% of the likes. Research suggests that the apps also privilege women who are considered attractive and successful. This dating-app inequality likely results in even more resignation and loneliness, especially for those of lesser means.
For young women who meet partners online or in person, sexual encounters can be deeply unsatisfying — even harrowing. In today's post-sexual-revolution culture, "consent alone is the standard for good and ethical sex" says Washington Post columnist Christine Emba. But even if consented to, dehumanizing sexual acts (often learned from pornography) leave women feeling uncomfortable. As Emba writes:
Many of my contemporaries are discouraged by the romantic landscape, its lack of trust, emotion and commitment, but they also believe that safer options and smoother avenues aren't possible. Instead, they assume that this is how things go and that it would be unreasonable to ask for more — and rude not to go along with whatever has been requested.
As a result of these troubling trends in America's dating culture, young women and men are growing further apart, unsure of how to bridge the divide growing between them. How might we begin to recover a more fruitful vision of eros — one that encourages both sexes to take on the duties and delights of loving relationships?
One goal should be to provide young Americans with more incentives to put down their screens and engage with human beings in the real world. Political leaders appear to have given up trying to restrict or ban pornography due to its pervasiveness, but anti-porn activism used to be a rare opportunity for agreement among liberal feminists and social conservatives — and there's no reason why it can't be once again. Conservatives should take heart from the successes of the #MeToo movement in rejecting the sexual predation of men and the objectification of women, and seek to form coalitions where possible to limit the spread of sexual material. They might just find some unlikely allies: As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has noted, "there have been growing signs of young women rebelling against a culture that prizes erotic license over empathy and responsibility."
Indeed, the key to a healthier dating culture lies in reckoning with the costs of sexual liberation. A society saturated with pornography, dating apps, and an anything-goes approach to sexual encounters (as long as they are consensual) leaves us with "a world in which young people are both liberated and miserable," Emba writes. In her book Rethinking Sex, she proposes an alternative sexual ethic based on Saint Thomas Aquinas's definition of love — "willing the good of the other." "Willing the good means caring enough about another person to consider how your actions (and their consequences) might affect them — and then choosing not to act if the outcome would be negative," she writes. This Thomistic ethic "might lead to less casual sex," she concedes, and represents a "much higher standard than consent. But consent was always the floor — it never should have been the ceiling."
Given their ubiquity, dating apps are likely here to stay. We can acknowledge their benefits while also recognizing their limitations and inequalities. An ethic of willing the good of the other applies here too: Individuals with dating profiles are not avatars, but real human beings with hopes, fears, dreams, and dignity, and they deserve to be treated as such. Those looking for a more committed relationship might also try skipping the apps and adopting some older norms of courtship, as opinion writer Michal Leibowitz has suggested:
It might be worth eschewing the relative privacy and autonomy of an app to ask our friends for help, worth refraining from acting immediately on our sexual freedoms in order to give our relationships time to develop, worth losing out on an abundance of potential options in order to narrow the pool to those who might actually want to share a future with us.
Whether young people seek out dates online or in person, they could learn much from the model of courtship depicted by Lewis in The Four Loves. His ideal of eros is much less concerned with sex, pleasure, and the self than our modern understanding of the concept. "Eros," he wrote, "though the king of pleasures, always (at his height) has the air of regarding pleasure as a by-product....For one of the first things Eros does is to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving."
If we can teach our young men and women to fuse and order their sexual and romantic desires into a self-giving eros, as opposed to a self-serving one, they are more likely to find the human intimacy, companionship, and love they seek.
"God is love," writes Saint John the Apostle in one of the most succinct statements of the Christian faith. Divine love, or charity — what the Greeks called agape — is gratuitous, limitless, and universal. We exist because of it. As Lewis wrote, "God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them."
This love can feel distant in a lonely, cruel world filled with suffering. But in truth, we experience charity all the time. "All who have good parents, wives, husbands, or children," Lewis wrote, "may be sure that at some times — and perhaps at all times in respect of some one particular trait or habit — they are receiving Charity, are loved not because they are lovable but because Love Himself is in those who love them."
As discussed in the preceding sections, Americans no longer form as many friendships, marriages, or families as they once did; they are therefore less likely to give or receive charity. At the same time, church attendance and religious affiliation have ebbed, meaning fewer people gather to contemplate the divine. In turn, fewer people know that they are loved.
Several studies chart America's religious decline over the decades. About 30% of U.S. adults are religious "nones," meaning they do not identify with a particular religion; this includes 29% of Millennials and 34% of Generation Z. Pew Research Center projects that the religiously unaffiliated could represent a majority of the country by 2070. For the first time in Gallup's eight decades of polling on the issue, fewer than half of Americans say they belong to a religious congregation. Lastly, the percentage of Americans who express a "great deal/quite a lot" of confidence in the "church or organized religion" has dropped significantly in recent decades: from 64% in 1981 to 31% in 2022.
Americans may be leaving institutional churches in droves, but that doesn't mean they're rejecting religion entirely. Tara Isabella Burton has written that increasing numbers of young adults are pursuing "intuitional" forms of spirituality outside the confines of organized religion. In her book Strange Rites, Burton highlights the 72% of religious nones who believe in a higher power of some kind (whether the God of the Bible or another divine force), as well as the 27% of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." Researchers at Baylor University have also found that
many individuals who report no religious affiliation or check "none" on surveys (as well as atheists and agnostics) display a wide variety of religious and spiritual practices and beliefs. Many attend religious services, pray, meditate, believe in God or a higher power, have religious experiences, and believe in heaven, hell, and miracles.
The fracturing of organized religion in America has thus yielded a strange kaleidoscope of new faiths. Some find meaning and purpose in "wellness culture" or self-care, including exercise classes like SoulCycle. Others view their career as so central to their identity that it supplants religion. Pagan practices like astrology and witchcraft are also resurgent. These new forms of spirituality are fueled by social media and consumerism, and tend to have a political bent. From social-justice activists to Silicon Valley's transhumanists to "men's rights" groups, what they all share is an anti-institutional outlook that locates the sacred within this world — often in our very selves.
Contemporary American religion is also dominated by the phenomenon of politicized Christianity — churches and believers who link their spiritual mission with right-wing political activism. As churchgoers seek out pastors who confirm their political views rather than proclaim the Gospel, evangelical congregations are splintering along partisan lines. Indeed, an increasing number of people who call themselves "evangelicals" rarely attend religious services at all, embracing the label only for its political connotations. Such blurring of the distinctions between politics and religion has undermined religious witness and sown societal division.
Americans' efforts to satisfy their religious yearnings in all sorts of unorthodox places — politics, work, self-improvement, paganism — have left us lonely and divided. But the hunger for spirituality among Americans, and young people especially, should give us hope. How might they become reconnected with traditional religious communities, with a transcendent sense of the sacred, with the giving and receiving of charity?
First, it should be noted that the history of American religiosity is not a simple story of inevitable decline amid the rise of secularism. The Revolutionary era, as Lyman Stone has written, was a "uniquely secular time." Religious affiliation rose in the 19th century — driven by the flowering of new faiths like Methodism and Mormonism, as well as Catholic and Jewish immigrants who imported their faiths from overseas — and continued to increase until the 1960s. Stone explains:
Americans today are more likely to be part of a religious community than they were in 1800; the change over time can be characterized neither by a gradual decline from a religiously pristine past nor by the onward march of rational thinking. It's better to think of these rises and falls as fundamentally contingent processes driven by a variety of factors at different times and places.
Religious disaffiliation is thus not a permanent trend, meaning it can be reversed. One place to start would be to encourage American parents to think more deeply about how they raise their children. Pollster Daniel Cox notes in a March 2022 report that most Americans who leave their childhood religion do so before the age of 18 — suggesting they never had a strong attachment to it in the first place. Members of Generation Z, the most religiously unaffiliated generation, are less likely than older Americans to have attended religious services, participated in Sunday school, or prayed with their family during meals while growing up. Parents in these families either placed less importance on religious practices or did not give their children a religious upbringing.
Indeed, the key to encouraging more adults to maintain a religious affiliation in which they find community and meaning is to ensure they are more engaged with religion during childhood. Sociologist Christian Smith has proposed a number of ways that parents might hand down their faith to the next generation, including authentically practicing religion themselves, implementing a parenting style that instills discipline but also offers "affective warmth" and support, discussing religion routinely, and making efforts to steer their children toward relationships and activities that help them personalize religion internally rather than making them feel like it has been imposed on them.
Beyond parents, how might churches and religious institutions themselves attract more congregants? Conservatives in recent years have been prone to blame the left's control of media, entertainment, universities, and other elite institutions, as well as "liberalism" more broadly, for the increasing secularism of society. Those claims have merit. Yet organized religion has also been responsible for many of its own failures. Both Catholic and Protestant churches are still attempting to rebuild trust amid scandals of sexual abuse and institutional corruption. Religious bodies writ large, meanwhile, are often deficient in teaching their faiths, cultivating welcoming and diverse communities, and avoiding the temptation of becoming ensnared in politics and our never-ending culture war.
To evangelize more effectively, religious institutions and their members would be wise to ask a basic question: What makes them different from the rest of the world?
Bishop Robert Barron, a Catholic evangelist, has highlighted the three "transcendentals" — truth, goodness, and beauty — as the most distinctive and attractive elements of faith. Understanding and emphasizing each of these elements is key to identifying what makes organized religion a unique institution in society.
Truth, the first transcendent quality of faith, might be viewed as a tough sell in an age that questions whether objective truth or morality really exist. Churches should be confident, however, that their teachings still fulfill the most fundamental desires of the human spirit. As journalist Evan Myers has noted, young converts find that faith helps them navigate the challenges of their own time and place by discovering God and transcendence in a desacralized society, living as "embodied souls" in an age of disembodying technology, and achieving unity during a period of family breakdown and political division.
Religion's radical goodness — the second element — is most visible in its commitment to charitable work and cultivation of neighborly love. Young people devoted to social justice today may not believe that religious organizations do most of the practical work to ensure that everyone is cared for and given their due, but it's true: Religious individuals and institutions play an outsized role in American philanthropic efforts, spearheading everything from adoption agencies and refugee resettlements to addiction recovery and care for the homeless.
The beauty of faith is the final element Barron identifies. Beauty in religion does not simply come from its cathedrals and sacred art; the communities and relationships within churches are also a source of beauty. It is beautiful when people find a spiritual home — a community of fellow believers to bear one another's sufferings and to share their joys. Such a home is where congregants practice the virtue of charity: loving God above all things and their neighbors as themselves.
In his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI described love as "a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God." On this journey, humanity discovers a friend — a Creator who loved us first.
THE JOURNEY TO LOVE
In 16th-century Britain, where the term "loneliness" was first coined, being lonely meant straying from society. But modern loneliness is different. It "has since moved inward," English professor Amelia Worsley writes, "and has become much harder to cure....[I]t's taken up residence inside minds, even the minds of people living in bustling cities....The wilderness is now inside of us."
Lonely Americans today are stuck. The most prominent voices in our culture tell us to find refuge in ourselves — to discover our identity, zealously guard our autonomy, and seek self-enlightenment. But within the wilderness of the self, we become lost. We ache for something more — for transcendence, for love. At the same time, we are fearful of the sacrifices it might require.
The journey from loneliness to love starts with embracing this state of vulnerability and risk, not fleeing from it. As Lewis wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Much is mysterious about the operation of love, but not necessarily where to find it. It is found in virtuous friendships, in the affection of family, in the self-giving eros of married couples, in the charity of religious communities and of the Creator who gently knocks on the doors of our hearts. These loves will sometimes be in tension; as Lewis warned, if we allow our human loves to "become gods," then they will also "become demons" and "destroy us." But there can be a beautiful synergy among them in the ordinary, daily activities of life. As Lewis put it:
A game, a joke, a drink together, idle chat, a walk, the act of Venus — all these can be modes in which we forgive or accept forgiveness, in which we console or are reconciled, in which we "seek not our own." Thus in our very instincts, appetites and recreations, Love has prepared for Himself "a body."
To choose love is to embrace duties and sacrifice, yes. But it also brings communion and joy.