Published December 15, 2022
It is bad that Americans are increasingly living alone.
This is obvious, but there are dissenters. For example, Frank Bruni of The New York Times recently complained that his paper’s reporting on older Americans living alone framed this as a problem. He is, he admits, “half-kidding. Both articles were important. They rightly expressed concern for older Americans who don’t have the resources or the kind of extended family that I do.”
But while acknowledging that there may be a general problem, he nonetheless wanted to inform his readers of the potential “bliss” of living alone, which he says is found in living as one wishes, from bedtimes to noise to tidiness, with no demands beyond those of his dog. To those who might consider this “selfish and shallow,” he replies, “Don’t people who live in larger households have their own indulgences?” He contends, “Their domestic arrangements are as driven by personal desires as mine is. It’s just that they have different wants.”
But it is not so simple. The reality is that many people living alone would prefer not to, but our culture and economic structure are making it harder to form and sustain the family lives that most people want. Consequently, a lot of people give up — for many young people, a happy marriage and family life seem like something from an alien world, while for many of their elders, it seems like something that has been irretrievably passed by or lost.
This reveals the cruel relativism in Bruni’s suggestion that “personal desires” all have equal value — that wanting an uninterrupted morning routine is equivalent to wanting to raise a happy family. This is false. Some desires are nobler and more virtuous than others, and they ought to be encouraged. It is true that those of us who are married with children still have our indulgences (often too many), but the love and sacrifice at the core of a flourishing family life are not reducible to the level of fulfilling a personal whim precisely because it is directed toward willing the good of the other.
This is why the constraints of family life are so often good for us. They teach us to subordinate our personal desires for creature comforts and pleasures to the good of other people. The self-sacrifice of loving parenting is one of the great examples in this world of Jesus’ teaching that we must lose our life to gain it. Life as “Daddy” or “Mommy” is only possible through interruptions and effacements, great and small. It is a more difficult but better life than one devoted to personal ambition and indulgence.
Of course, those who live alone, whether by happenstance or choice, can still recognize and act upon the truth that other people are what matter most in life — and conversely, a man who is married with children may still be thoroughly selfish. And no doubt Bruni can be kind and generous to his friends and family when he wishes. The problem is that Bruni is making an ethos of selfishness, which is why he had to equate the desire to have children with love for a quiet coffee time and plenty of closet space.
Genuine unselfishness is willing to be intruded upon and inconvenienced by the neediness and dependence of others, not just to offer kindness on its terms when we feel like it. But liberalism, which is culturally and philosophically based on the ideal of the self-sufficient, autonomous individual, encourages us to keep our options open and disdain the dependence of others. Consequently, the natural family is dying out as the ruling class in our liberal culture teaches us to view marriage as impermanent and children as an optional luxury good that’s bad for the environment.
In contrast, Christianity teaches that marriage is a sacred image of Christ and the church, children are a gift from God, and those who are unmarried and childless have a special place in the community of believers. Notably, this is not just for those who are members of a religious order vowed to celibacy but for all believers who are free from the responsibilities of marriage and children and are, therefore, able to more fully devote themselves to the work of God and the church.
This selflessness, in turn, reincorporates into family life those who are otherwise alone as they become entwined with the families of their church and community. This inclusion is, of course, easier when living alone is rarer. Roles such as the fun single aunt, doting childless godmother, or beloved Sunday school teacher are premised on other people having children. A Christian community will seek to share the benefits and burdens of both family and single life. This is because Christianity knows that it is not good for man to be alone and that the deepest fulfillment and joys of this life are found in human relationships.
We are meant to love and be loved. And as great as they are, coffee and dogs can’t meet our need for human love.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.