On a blustery March day five years ago, I locked arms with my mother and walked into a church in Maplewood, New Jersey to bury my brother. Bagpipes played “Amazing Grace.” I remember shivering and worrying: that my dad would slip, my mom would collapse, and that I would botch the eulogy.
The church was packed. My brothers’ four daughters looked empty, absent; all eyes on them, no escape from the hell that was that moment. His wife’s pain and fear were palpable. When I stood up on the lectern and saw several hundred people, all of whom seemed to actually know my brother, I was humbled by the life he had created. He had designed exactly the life he wanted: running his own architecture firm in New York City, parenting four girls, belonging to a community that he had helped build, literally (by designing houses) and figuratively—by coaching lacrosse, talking to neighbors in the yard and strangers at the grocery store, and attending approximately two million children’s birthday parties.
In seeing his community, I became acutely aware of the feeling that I did not have my own. I had friends and a loving family. But as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I spent my days focused on optimizing myself: Endlessly working and improving, on a permanent quest to do as much as possible in the unforgiving confines of 24 hours. It was the only way I knew how to be. Compete. Excel. Win.
I had never considered there might be a cost to a life of high-octane, high-reward competition.
It is no secret that aging helps with perspective. Bill Gates, reflecting on his work last year, said that as a young man in his 20s, he was consumed with making Microsoft a personal-computing giant. Today, his focus is on other people: “Did I devote enough time to my family? Did I learn enough new things? Did I develop new friendships and deepen old ones? These would have been laughable to me when I was 25, but as I get older, they are much more meaningful.”
Before Robbie got sick, if you had asked me if community mattered, I would have said yes. But I wouldn’t have thought about it much. Nor would I have spent much time working out what it meant.
But after many nights in emergency rooms and too-long stays in hospitals, of watching my nieces slowly lose their father, I got a glimpse of what community looks like. It was the people who turned up before they were asked, to do things they didn’t have time to do. Neighbors who collected kids from school and came to hospitals to sit. Friends who stayed. Groups of people who materialized to make lunch for four kids for months because their parents couldn’t.
This was community. And what I would come to learn, slowly, is that community is about a series of small choices and everyday actions: how to spend a Saturday, what to do when a neighbor falls ill, how to make time when there is none. Knowing others and being known; investing in somewhere instead of trying to be everywhere. Communities are built, like Legos, one brick at a time. There’s no hack.
When Robbie died, I wanted to do less and be more. And what I wanted to be was more connected—not only to my family and close friends, but to the people around me who would be the buffer against the inevitable absence of me.
What’s happening to communities?
Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, many of us are still nominally in touch with our high-school friends and coworkers from several jobs ago. But in our daily lives, communities are shrinking. From 1985 to 2009, the average size of an American’s social network—defined by the number of confidants people feel they have—has declined by more than one-third. We may have hundreds of friends on Instagram, but evidence is mounting that those connections are not the ones that provide us the social balm we need, which is human contact. Instead, the more “connected” we become, the more we seem to let our social relationships atrophy, failing to catch up with an old friend, invite a neighbor over for coffee, or engage in some of life’s banal daily rituals—talking with someone on the way to the tube, getting coffee from a cafe where you know the barista’s name—which soothe our social needs.
“Humans need others to survive,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Regardless of one’s sex, country or culture of origin, or age or economic background, social connection is crucial to human development, health, and survival.”
In 2010, Holt-Lunstad published research showing that people who had weaker social ties had a 50% increased likelihood of dying early than those with stronger ones. Being disconnected, she showed, posed danger comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity.
You can have friends and family and still feel deprived of community. John Cacioppo, who died last year, pioneered the field of social neuroscience and dedicated more than two decades to studying loneliness. He explained how misunderstood it could be—associated with social isolation, depression, introversion, and poor social skills, when in fact it does not discriminate by income or class, by ethnicity or gender. It is everywhere. Indeed, anyone living in a big city knows this is true: you can have 100 friends and feel lonely. As Matthew Brashears, who conducts social network research at the University of South Carolina, says: “The problem isn’t ‘are you socially isolated,’ ie, you have no social contact. The question is, are you experiencing social poverty, inadequate social support?”
For both the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the answer seems to be “yes.” When the BBC conducted a recent loneliness survey, asking 55,000 people about their relationships, they found adults between the ages of 16 and 24 were the loneliest, with 40% responding that they felt lonely “often” or “very often.” Meanwhile, 27% of those over age 75 had the same response.
The problem can also cut across cultures. When the Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed rich countries with the Economist in 2018, it found that 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America, and 23% in Britain always or often felt lonely, lacked companionship, or felt left out or isolated. People crave a sense of belonging. And yet we focus on how to look better, exercise efficiently, and work effectively, often neglecting to take the necessary steps to build and sustain social ties.
Choices have consequences. My brother and his wife moved from New York City’s Upper West Side to a suburb in New Jersey soon before the second of their four children was born. I pitied them: the commute, the strip malls, the numbing sameness of it all.
My brother, then an architect for a big-name firm, saw what I was seeing. “You think it’s soul death. It’s not,” he’d tell me when I would take the train from the city on weekends. He extolled the virtues of space, the yard where the kids could play, the trampoline they could jump on, the strollers that could be left outside. People stopped by to chat or drop off their kids. He had neighbors; they knew the names of one another’s kids and the weird things each one was afraid of (spiders; jelly; being barefoot). One shit-boring birthday party at a time, he celebrated the seeming unexceptionality of it all.
I loved venturing out of the train onto Maplewood Avenue, especially in the fall with the leaves, electric reds and yellows everywhere, or in winter, where the snow didn’t disintegrate to black slush. But for the most part, the whole thing held zero appeal to me. My husband and I were raising our kids in New York City. We took them to Mo Willems book signings and Laurie Berkner concerts, and explored the High Line with babies in tow. We were happy; building our busy lives, welcoming one and then two kids, trying to form the ties that bind.
But on those walks on the High Line, surrounded by early-morning runners, polished traders and bankers, consultants, actors and fashionistas, I craved mediocrity. Where were the haggard humans, the people who walk around in sweatpants and not $100 Lululemon leggings? Where were those too tired to brush their hair, who felt they were failing on all fronts? All I could see was people striving to improve. I am sure many wanted to move beyond their bubbles; many probably did. But mostly, it seemed everyone was busy with being a player in high-stakes game.
Though I didn’t understand it at the time, I was lonely. I didn’t think it possible—I had friends, I had kids, I had no time. How could I be lonely?
Loneliness researcher Cacioppo found that many of the things we think will help—improving people’s social skills or increasing social engagement—don’t. What does help lonely people is to educate them about how our brains can turn in on ourselves, causing us to retreat into self-preservation mode and be on high alert for social threats. This naturally makes people engage less and feel even more lonely, creating a vicious cycle. He found that learning how to connect required rebuilding certain physical muscles, including learning or re-learning social cues, including tone of voice, eye contact, and posture.
It’s also necessary to give to others, so that they will in turn give to us, as Cacioppo explained to the Guardian. This can feel hard. It requires being vulnerable at a moment when one feels uniquely unsuited to do that. That’s why it’s not enough to get help or have a therapist, although these are certainly important. “We need mutual aided protection,” he said. “If you are only receiving aid and protection from others, that doesn’t satisfy this deeper sense of belonging.”
This idea is backed up by research from Julia M. Rohrer, a PdD candidate at the Max Plank Institute who studied a large group of Germans who said they were committed to trying to become happier. The twist was that some pursued self-improvement goals such as getting a new job or making more money, while others tried spending more time with friends and family. A year later, she found those who focused on connecting more with others were happier than those who pursued self-improvement. “Our results demonstrate that not all pursuits of happiness are equally successful and corroborate the great importance of social relationships for human well-being,” her team wrote in the study published in Psychological Science.
The thing that makes us happiest in life is other people. And yet other people are often the first thing to fall off our list of priorities.
Seeing is believing
On one frigid series of New York City nights, I slept on a small cot in the ICU with my brother. He had had 30 pounds of tumors and, in an effort to stop the relentless march of cancer, doctors amputated his leg at the hip, where the tumors were concentrated.
He was opposed to this surgery. At moments convinced he would recover and be able to run, his doctor finally told him he could not survive if he did not literally cut out the cancer.
“Do you think I should do it?” he asked me desperately one night on the phone. I assured him it would be fine though I was not at all sure it would be. How had it come to this? Later, I called him to update him on state of the art prosthetics. I could hear the defeat in his voice. “That will not be me,” he said matter-of-factly.
I flew to New York for the surgery. When I arrived, he was in intensive care and in a lot of pain. When the nurses changed his dressing he would cry for them to stop. This from a man who never admitted pain before, a once-bear of a human who could carry two 40-pound kids down a beach on a blazing hot day.
He was proud, and would ask me to leave when they came to tend to the wounds. I remember sitting right outside his door, resting my head on a desk, winded by the sight of him: no leg, so many tubes and machines. One of his nurses squatted by me, took my hand, looked at me. “He is so lucky to have you.”
“Why?” I sobbed, knowing it was a strange question for someone who saw pain all day long. “I don’t know,” he said genuinely, hugging me tightly.
Late one night, around 10 pm, a friend came by. She brought me a meal. We talked about her startup. She mentioned her own mother’s death. “It felt like it would never be normal again. Eventually it was. Not normal, but it was okay.” When she left, disappearing into a bitterly cold night, I could breathe again.
The nurse. The friend. They gave me something Facebook or Instagram could not.
Building a life
We moved to London amidst my brother’s illness. I felt alone, vulnerable, and angry. I was furious at half my friends for failing to grasp the hell we were living through.
But through the fog of grief, and over time, I took what I learned from my brother and started to build what I needed. When I returned to London after his funeral, I leaned on one friend. I retreated into my family. I took up piano, and in my piano teacher, I found a gentle soul whose priorities seemed so clear that I could start to remake my own. The power of quiet. The reward of learning. The catharsis of music and solitude. My pain unfolded, but not quite so aggressively.
We moved into a new house, and I introduced myself to my neighbors. I decided to act as if we were staying there forever, even though I had no idea how long we were staying. I could no longer afford to always be looking ahead to the next place, or job, or project.
On a Saturday afternoon, at my mother-in-law’s house in the countryside for my daughters’ birthdays, I got a call from my New York Times editor, who needed a story. I left the party and wrote it. A few months later, I quit the Times. I did not want to miss another birthday party.
Over time, we found our people. On my daughter’s 10th birthday, we had dinner at an Italian café on our street owned by a trio of forever-bickering brothers. Gianluca welcomed us with hugs. We shared the meal with family friends. At the end of the evening, I saw my friend whispering to Ella. She beamed. I later asked what she’d said. “She told me that I could tell her anything, that she would always be there for me,” Ella said, grinning at the thought of it. “Even stuff I don’t tell you.” My friend would be there for her. Community.
Last Christmas, we moved back home after a stint away due to construction. The house was a mess, Christmas was looming, and I had deadlines to meet at work. I needed to get presents for our gigantic extended family. In the dust and the chaos, I literally could not breathe. I ended up in the hospital with an ulcer.
When I was released at 6 am, a friend came to get me. She found the 24-hour pharmacy, got my medicine, brought me to her home, fed me, and put me to bed. The next night, I tried to go home, but could not sleep again. In the middle of the night, I turned up at a different friend’s house. She, too, put me to bed. In the morning, she served me soup. “When do you make this?” I asked. “I made it yesterday,” she said, “just in case you needed it.”
A few weeks later, I flew back from New York to find my husband in bed with a raging fever and no kids. “Where are the girls?” I asked. “Sleeping at Sam and Kate’s,” he said. A few doors down.
I used to think that community was as simple as having friends who bring a lasagna when things fall apart and champagne when things go well. Who pick up your kids from school when you can’t. But I think community is also an insurance policy against life’s cruelty; a kind of immunity against loss and disappointment and rage. My community will be here for my family if I cannot be. And if I die, my kids will be surrounded people who know and love them, quirks and warts and oddities and all.
In future-proofing my life, I have made every day richer. A problem shared is a problem halved, my kids were taught at school. Communities do that too. I arrived in my version of the soulless suburbs, and it turns out they are not soulless at all.
Warren Buffett, a friend of Gates, says that his measure of success comes down to one question: “Do the people you care about love you back?”
“I think that is about as good a metric as you will find,” wrote Gates.
I’d concur. Keep connecting with people, and in time, you will have a community.