If you’re old enough, you might remember the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave. I do not. Because I was 13 months old. But you might.
In July of 1995, Chicago saw the worst heat wave in years. For weeks leading up to it, the folks at the local weather station were warning people to stock up on water, run their air conditioner as much as possible, keep indoors, and so on and so forth. The heat wave was gonna be so bad that their advice was literally just “Don’t go outside.”
To make matters worse, this was happening dead in the center of Chicago, a place you usually think of for the cold. You think of the infamous Chicago wind chill. It’ll be 65 degrees with a wind chill of negative 7 degrees. Your ice cream will be melting and your sweat droplets will be freezing. That’s what Chicago is like.
Have you ever tried to fly somewhere and had a layover in Chicago? Don’t do it. If it’s anywhere between October and April, you’re probably going to get snowed in.
That’s what Chicago is like.
That’s what these folks are used to. So when hit 125 Farenheit at the peak, it hit them like a train. They weren’t prepared.
Residents also experienced wildly extreme humidity, overnight temperatures, and stagnant air, making the crisis impossible to escape. As a result, over the course of just 8 days at least 739 people ended up dying due to heat stroke, dehydration, heat exhaustion, kidney failure, and electrolyte imbalances. Local meat packing plants had to volunteer their refrigeration trucks because the medical examiner’s offices couldn’t keep up with all the corpses.
But what makes the story interesting is what happens next.
It just so happened that a sociology grad student named Eric Klinenberg got ahold of the public records. He started combing through exactly who lived, who died, and why.
And what he noticed was that the deaths were all clustered together geographically. You could literally put up a map of Chicago and you could map the deaths out neighborhood by neighborhood.
There was a pattern: Large numbers of people in neighborhoods like North Lawndale died from heat exhaustion, but almost nobody in neighborhoods like South Lawndale did.
The funeral home at this neighborhood was overloaded with bodies but the funeral home at that neighborhood had a slow week.
The neighborhoods had exactly the same microclimate. The people came from the same socio-economic statuses. Notwithstanding some modestdifferences (South Lawndale has a 15% higher median income as of 2020), they had access to roughly the same resources.
But the folks in North Lawndale were people dropping like flies during the heat wave while the folks in South Lawndale made it through just fine.
After a several years of studying the neighborhoods of Chicago in excruciating detail, what he found was that there was really only one difference between the neighborhoods that thrived during the heat wave and the neighborhoods that suffered: That difference was community.
The difference was that in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, the residents lived solitary lives.
They kept to themselves. They didn’t really know each other. They didn’t spend time together. They weren’t getting together every week. They weren’t talking to each other about their problems. They didn’t have each other on speed dial. They weren’t familiar. They weren’t on friendly terms. The people there were isolated. They were alone.
In neighborhoods like that, the body count was over 700.
But over in South Lawndale, everybody knew each other by name. They talked to each other on a daily basis. They had meals together regularly. They babysat each other’s kids. They watched over each other’s houses when they were away. They kept each other’s pets when they were on vacation. The folks in South Lawndale and neighborhoods like it were on a first name basis. They went grocery shopping together. They bought each other Christmas presents. They were intertwined in each other’s lives.
The people in South Lawndale were friends. They were almost like family. They were a community. In neighborhoods like that, the death toll was almost zero.
These tight knit neighborhoods thrived even amidst a dangerous heat wave.
I can tell you why: Because human beings are created for community.
I think the easiest way to wrap our heads around this is to rewind all the way back to Genesis.
In the book of Genesis, it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
God spends day after day creating. He creates the heavens and the earth, and it’s good. He creates the sea and everything in it, and it’s good. He creates the birds and everything that dwells in the sky, and it’s good. He creates the animals and everything that crawls on the land, and it’s good. And he creates humanity, and it’s good.
But then there’s something that’s not good.
The Lord creates the first human, he creates Adam, and he looks down at Adam and he says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
He created us for community.
He created you for community.
You don’t exist for yourself. You are not just an individual. You were created for togetherness. You were created for relationships. You were created to know and be known by others. God didn’t make you to live your life alone. He didn’t design you to thrive in isolation. You were hard wired for community, for friendship, for connection, for relationship, for fellowship, for togetherness. You were not designed just to be an individual, just to be yourself. You were designed to be part of a group. Part of a family. Part of a whole. You were created for community.
And because God created you for community, it is not good for you to be alone.
I love the way that Pastor Paul David Tripp puts it. He says:
“We weren’t created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in a humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others. Our lives were designed to be community projects.”
You are created for community.
But all of this really runs against the grain of what we’ve been taught to believe and value as Americans. We live in a period defined by what a lot of sociologists refer to as “expressive individualism.” O. Carter Snead – the Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and professor of Political Science at Notre Dame – defines expressive individualism as an ideology that:
“takes the individual, atomized self to be the fundamental unit of human reality. This self is not defined by its attachments or network of relations, but rather by its capacity to choose a future pathway that is revealed by the investigation of its own inner depths of sentiment.”
That’s densely packed and filled with technical jargon, but in its simplest form, it means that the most important thing in this worldview is to “be yourself,” to carve out your own path, to do your own thing, to follow your dreams and don’t let anybody get in your way, that you choose the meaning of your life and nobody else should be able to talk you out of it, and that you should be willing to cut off contact with anybody who stands in the way of you living exactly the way you want to, being exactly what you want to be, doing exactly what you want to do.
And one of the really disastrous consequences of our getting swept up in expressive individualism is that our desire for community is dwindling.
For about 100 years now, the value we place on community has been withering. Our appetite for togetherness has been shrinking.
Think about it: After you get up in the morning, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, get dressed, go to work for somewhere between eight and 12 hours, then punch your card and clock out, what’s the first thing you want to do? You want to go home.
You want to go inside your house, lock your door, and watch seven episodes of Property Brothers before falling asleep.
If your coworkers invite you to go get a drink after your shift or something like that, you kind of groan and try to think of an excuse that’ll help you get out of it.
If your neighbors are putting on a block party, you’ve really got to give yourself a pep talk to get in the right frame of mind to be able to go to it. The list goes on.
That might just be because you’re a hermit, but more broadly it’s a symptom of our shrinking appetite for community. For the last century and beyond we’ve been shifting away from loving community and towards individualism instead. Away from togetherness and towards isolation. Away from fellowship and towards solitariness. We were created for community but our desire for community has evaporated.
You can actually watch that shift happening through the years in the way we build our houses. For a very long time, the norm when you were building a house was to build a gigantic front porch, because every evening after work you were going to wait for your neighbors to get home and everybody was going to congregate together on somebody’s front porch – talking, drinking, sharing stories, having a good time. Our houses were literally built for community.
But over the years our front porches turned into back patios that laid behind fenced in backyards, designed to help you avoid your neighbors.
Now the norm is to work your way into a sectioned-off suburban box with a picket fence in the front and a privacy fence in the back, where you go home after work and avoid everybody till tomorrow when you’re forced to see them again.
We were created for community but our appetite for community has withered to nothing. And one of the things I want to point out, this morning, is that that’s hurting us. To the point that sociologists are starting to sound the alarm.
One study I saw found this:
“25% of Millennials report that they have no acquaintances. 22% report having no friends. 27% report having no close friends. 30% report having no best friends. 31% of Americans report finding it difficult to make friends.”
Last week I saw an entry in the Scientific American journal called “Why Young Americans Are So Lonely.”
But it’s not just young Americans. NPR just ran a story that found that “3 out of 5 Americans are Lonely.”
To the point that a recent Psychology Today article refers to America as “Isolation Nation.”
And that’s the shallow end. The New York Times just ran a series called “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us.”
Over at the Dispatch, they found the same thing. They said “Loneliness and Isolation are Killing American Society.”
AARP did a study and they found that “Isolation is killing America’s Nursing Home Residents.”
That’s intense, but the numbers back it up.
One study found that between 1999 and 2019 the suicide rate increased by 33%. In 2019, a person killed themselves every 11 minutes on average, that’s about 48,000 in all. About 1.4 million more people attempted suicide. About 3.5 million planned out a suicide attempt before ultimately backing down. And about 12 million more people seriously thought about ending their own lives.
And I guarantee once the 2020 numbers come out they’ll be bigger than that.
And if you Google it, you’ll find similar numbers for alcohol poisoning, opioid overdoses, and more.
Specialists have literally had to come up with a new name to give this phenomenon: Deaths of despair. As our appetite for community shrinks, our descent into despair deepens.
We were created for community, and so isolation harms us. When you are created for community, isolation hurts you, whether you are in an active emergency or just the long road of life. Even if we don’t realize it at the time, our slide into hyper-individualism has been killing us. Because you are created for community.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.