A recent conversation between New York Times columnist David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Leon Kass piqued my interest as I listened to these men—Brooks in his 60s, Kass in his 80s—share concerns for the college students they teach. (Brooks was a student of Kass at the University of Chicago in the 1980s.)
These students, they agreed, were singularly preoccupied with career questions: What work would prove satisfying? How would they find their professional calling? They showed far less interest in competencies needed for life’s most important relationships. They didn’t ask what it took to sustain committed marriages or a healthy family life.
I wondered: Was this conversation another iteration of kids these days? Or do Brooks and Kass have their finger on a more pressing cultural problem—our glaring contemporary neglect of relational formation?
The conversation made me reconsider what kind of relational formation my children have received. My five children—two college students and three teenagers—have learned to navigate life (and leftovers) in a crowd. They’ve grown up in a church pew, understanding Christian faith as team sport. But perhaps we have mistakenly assumed that the skills and even appetite for relationships have required less formal education.
We’ve tried teaching our children to honor God, to love the church, to obey the Scriptures, to serve the least, to work hard, to stay curious, to be honest. But how much have we taught them—explicitly and systematically—about suffering interruptions, about sacrificing time for others, about staying patient and hopeful in misunderstanding and offense? What curriculum have we engaged for forming relationships across differences?
Belonging isn’t like breathing. There is nothing automatic about it, especially given the changing conditions of modern life. The skills for relationships can’t simply be caught today. Habits of belonging must be taught.
In many ways, Christians are advantaged in terms of relational formation. Given the corporate images of Christian identity in the Bible—the vine, the household, the family, the temple, the body—we know belonging isn’t an optional part of human life. We must be vitally connected to other people and mutually dependent. The Christian life is a together life. God is a God who sets the solitary in families; he husbands the widow and fathers the orphan. Who need be alone in the kingdom of God?
Christians (and Jews) also have an entire genre of the Bible dedicated to teaching us about the practical affairs of everyday life, including human relationships. Our books of wisdom literature, especially the Book of Proverbs, instruct us in the virtues necessary for living well with others: discretion, self-control, humility, generosity, honesty, slowness to anger. Wisdom literature assumes that the mode of human life is inherently social—and that skills are required for navigating the complexities of human relationships.
Ancient Israel, explains Ellen Davis in Getting Involved with God, had little interest in abstract knowledge. They didn’t invest, as their Egyptian and Mesopotamian counterparts, in fields like astronomy, architecture, engineering, medicine, and the fine arts.
“Israel was not interested in any form of knowledge that is abstracted from the concrete problem of how we may live in kindness and fidelity with our neighbors, live humbly and faithfully in the presence of God,” Davis writes. Wisdom literature is a practical curriculum on how to be a life partner, a parent, a friend, a neighbor. We love God as we love others well.
But despite these advantages we enjoy as God’s people, kids these days are facing new realities, such as socializing within a world of social media and pandemic restrictions. Loneliness was a public health crisis before March 2020, and though born-again Christians were faring better a year into the pandemic, many of us have continued to substitute virtual connection for physical togetherness.
It’s safe to assume that all of us have grown less relationally capable over the last couple of years. As one friend recently lamented to me, it’s harder these days to invest energy in our relationships, which feel more effortful than they did two years ago. Our relational skills are rusty, and they will need to be deliberately re-oiled.
Aside from pandemic conditions, much of our built environment doesn’t naturally support relational connection. I’m not simply thinking of suburban neighborhoods, minivans disappearing behind garage doors. Trends in college housing, as a more pertinent example, show an increasing demand for student privacy. “Students want to choose how and when they socialize,” writes Peter Aranyi of the global design firm Clark Nexsen. Mimicking their experience of the socially mediated world, students count on opting in and out of relational connection at will.
Social media is easily blamed for our relational ineptitude, but it’s also true that social media peddles a lot of relationship advice. “I remember when I used to be a people-pleaser,” one popular therapist and New York Times best-selling author admits on Instagram. She posts a list of concessions she used to make in her relationships, such as “Not speak up for myself” or “Pretend to agree with people.”
It represented the insistence I see in social spaces on self-trust, self-care, self-expression, and self-affirmation more than the wisdom of “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
We often lament the conditions of a technological society, that we’re losing the capacity for face-to-face communication in a digital environment. But there may be something more subtly dangerous about our digital world, in that we’ve come to expect easy, effortless goods.
Relationships are not easy or effortless. They involve burdens. Having friends, being a good neighbor, choosing to marry, raising children: To sign up for any of these relational commitments ensures we can no longer protect our lives from interruption and contingency.
To belong isn’t simply to benefit from human connection. It’s to take responsibility for it. It’s even to suffer for it.
Kids these days need this realism—and they need older generations to talk about why it’s worthwhile to interrupt the carefully constructed self-project for enduring relationships.
For a college student, belonging might mean sharing a dorm room rather than opting for a single. For a young professional, belonging might suggest geographical stability rather than mobility for the purpose of career advancement. For older adults, belonging might urge us toward invisible seasons of caregiving, for children or an aging parent. For each of us, belonging requires all kinds of ordinary virtues: admitting fault, swallowing grievance, risking honesty, staying put.
If anything seems true these days, conflict is endemic, and we need practical skills for the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7).
As families, as churches, we must understand habits of belonging require as much formation—which is to say education and practice—as any other aspect of our lives. As the nature of wisdom suggests, this will be a lifelong enterprise.
Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, podcast host, and speaker based in Toronto. She’s the author of four books and is working on a fifth: In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022).