A few years ago, when I lived in Northern California, I often hiked under old-growth redwoods. The roots of these mammoth trees, stretching some 200 feet into the air above us, run only six to 12 feet deep. Instead of growing down, they grow out, extending dozens of feet to each side, enmeshing themselves with the roots of their neighbors. This is why we never see a lone redwood: They can survive only in a grove, bound together in obligation.
Humans, too, need one another: We are stronger and more robust when enmeshed with others in community. But in our age of autonomy, efficiency, boundaries and self–care, we too often deprioritize, if not overlook altogether, the wellspring of strength and meaning that comes from obligation.
For people to really know us, we need to show up consistently. Over time, what starts out as obligation becomes less about something we have to do and more about something we want to do, something that we can’t imagine living without. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once wrote that “we’re all just walking each other home.” But that’s only true if we don’t constantly cancel our walking plans.
Not canceling plans means, essentially, showing up for one another. If we commit to certain people and activities, if we feel an obligation to show up for them, then it’s likely that we will, indeed, show up. And showing up repeatedly is what creates community.
But building community and cultivating lasting friendships means relaxing boundaries and giving up at least some autonomy and control. This isn’t to say we should sacrifice all self-regard. But we could benefit from a bit less focus on ourselves and a bit more focus on making time and space for the messiness of relationships. Many of us did this as children: We showed up for teams and clubs and youth groups, even though some days we were tired and it was a drag.
Community was once built into many people’s lives through organized religion. Adults would go to church, synagogue or mosque every week, and see the same people over and over again. They would contribute in a way that made them feel good, too — perhaps cooking for a Sunday dinner, raising money for a local charity or rallying the congregation to support another family. Making the sorts of commitments required when volunteering, say, to host a study group or coach youth baseball or grocery shop for someone who is homebound, puts people in service to others. What is lost in freedom is gained in community and belonging.
Religion still works for those who feel drawn to it. Researchers have found that people who go to religious services repeatedly are healthier and live longer. In 2016, the Journal of the American Medical Association publication Internal Medicine published the results of a study that surveyed some 75,000 women for 20 years and found that those who attended religious services more than once a week had a 33 percent lower mortality risk compared to those who never attended. The longevity benefits don’t owe themselves to what specific god participants were praying to, but to the fact that they felt obligated to show up regularly in a community setting.
But over the last few decades organized religion has been in decline, and nothing has replaced it. That’s not a theological concern as much as it’s a socio-emotional one. Work relationships only go so far. If you aren’t expected anywhere from week to week for something requiring your attendance — outside of your financial obligations — fewer people will miss you.
When you aren’t missed, you become lonely. Recent polling data from Morning Consult found that 58 percent of American adults feel lonely. In other words, in a room of 500 people, 290 are lonely, with a whopping 79 percent of young adults reporting feeling lonely.
The answer isn’t necessarily to find God, but to find ways to be in obligation with others. For example, you could join (or start) a book club or a walking club. You could decide with neighbors or friends to rotate hosting Friday night dinners. You could volunteer in your community to check in on seniors or offer tutoring services in reading; you could join a group working on local trail maintenance or contribute to community gardens; you could help unhoused people to find transitional housing. The key is that an obligation involves a mutual contract of responsibility and that it lives in pen (not pencil) on your calendar. A hidden cost of smartphones is how easy they’ve made it to cancel on people — all you have to do is text and profess apologies, and then feel good about having not, at least, left someone waiting. It’s as if all the plans we make are forever provisional. If you value friendships and community, schedule time for them as you would any other important meeting.
By definition, obligation is not optional. And therein lies its power: It makes you think twice before opting out. In the moment, canceling plans in the name of boundaries, wanting to be more efficient or take better care of yourself might feel great. But in the long run, the communities and people to whom we commit ourselves play a central role in what gives our lives joy and meaning.
Of course, there are structural issues that can make it hard for people to take this advice. Unsurprisingly, the Morning Consult data mentioned above found that 63 percent of adults making less than $50,000 per year felt lonely, which was 10 percentage points higher than those above that threshold. If people are working multiple jobs and struggling to make rent and pay for health care, starting a monthly book club is surely low on their list of priorities.
And yet social connection is a basic need, too. If we want the strength, stability and staying power of a redwood, we’d be wise to enmesh ourselves in obligation with others, and to work toward a society that makes this possible for everyone.
Brad Stulberg (@BradStulberg) writes about excellence and mental health and is the author, most recently, of “The Practice of Groundedness.”
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