- "I think this transformation in rebuilding more household-like communities is far more important than anything we do or don't do with technology." Tweet This
- "We need a community of recognition—a place where we cannot hide and we cannot get lost. And it's just tragic how many people in the U.S. do not have a place like that." Tweet This
- "It is true that most durable households often start with a family. But what I'm inviting us to imagine in this book is extending that." Tweet This
Last week, we shared the first part of our interview with author and speaker Andy Crouch about his new book, The Life We’re Looking For. In the book, Crouch writes: “If you are looking for a single proximate cause of the loneliness that is epidemic in our world, it is the dearth of households…this is even more consequential than the decline of family life per se, though the two are related in complex ways.” This week, we are picking up where we left off, as Crouch explains why he believes true human flourishing takes place in a community of interconnected relationships that extend beyond the family—and why he measures personal health by how many people have the keys to his house.
ElHage: One of the most intriguing parts of your book is your discussion of household, which you see as the place where human beings are most likely to thrive. Importantly, you distinguish between a family and a household, arguing that the “household is fundamental for personhood in a way that family actually is not.” Explain what you mean by that and how are both dependent on the other for true human flourishing?
Crouch: Yes, I pick up the word “household” to capture something that is common in many cultures, but is very often absent in Western culture, which is a structure of community and a kind of kinship that's larger than just the biological family and especially larger than just the mother, father, and children. The truth is many human beings today and throughout history have lived in these kinds of extended families, these extended networks of relationships. And this was certainly true in the Roman world, which is part of what I'm writing about in this book.
And the difference between household and family is that the household can include more people than family usually does... I use this as a kind of metaphor for the extended community that I think is best for us as persons. When you isolate what we call the nuclear family from these extended relationships, I think the nuclear family becomes less resilient and more fragile. Because the truth is, marriage and childrearing are very hard. We need social support of many kinds to do these things well and to keep doing them even when they're very hard. And the household is a kind of vision of community large enough to include and support a family.
The other thing is that the family, in the “nuclear family” sense, is a very temporary thing because children grow up, and they leave the family home. But we all need a community around us from the beginning of our lives to the end. Also, the nuclear family, which remains in some ways an ideal that many people aspire to, is not the reality for most people in the Western world for most of their lives. So I feel like we need to re-examine the basic communal unit of the way we live together to include more people—including those who are not married, maybe will never marry, or, if they have been married once and are no longer married, will never marry again—to include people at all stages of life. Because we need a community of recognition—a place where we cannot hide and a place where we cannot get lost. And it's just tragic how many people in the United States do not have a place like that.
It is true that most durable households often start with a family, and a family is an incredible part of human life. But what I'm inviting us to imagine in this book is extending that. I think one way to measure your health as a person is to ask: How many people have the keys to your house? How many people can pretty much let themselves into your life without knocking? Because if no one has the keys to my house, I am in grave danger of living and ending my life alone, and a huge number of people are alone at the end of their lives in our Western world. If no one has the keys to my house, I'm never known in the midst of life the way I really need to be known to thrive as a person.
"One way to measure your health as a person is to ask: How many people have the keys to your house? How many people can pretty much let themselves into your life without knocking?"
ElHage: How can we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and communities to become more household-like, as you put it, but in a way that is both safe and welcoming? I mention “safe” because I think for those of us who come from unstable family backgrounds, where safety was an issue, the idea of opening our doors to outsiders can be a scary thing.
Crouch: I’m glad you are asking this, because for one thing, I think this transformation in rebuilding more household-like communities is far more important than anything we do or don't do with our technology. The technology is just a symptom of a very isolated and impersonal world. The rebuilding of communities that are good for persons…[happens] in communities that are very small, and they always start small.
We begin by creating small canopies of trust, as I describe them in the book. And you can only grow the elements of community in your life at the speed of trust. It's absolutely the case that we can't just invite people into our homes that we do not have reason to trust. This means that for all of us, this will be a slow, patient process of longsuffering. And we should admit we are working against the grain of history here. Honestly, most of our ancestors, whether they came to the U.S. voluntarily, or whether they were forced to come here as those who were enslaved did, they came at the price of extended community. So we've got hundreds of years of history breaking these bonds in the United States.
You start with a few people; you're not going to hand out 12 keys tomorrow. But there might be someone you could give one key; invite them over and invite them one step closer. Or if you're a single person living in a city, maybe you're not going to move to a 2-bedroom apartment right away or a shared residence, but you could move closer to one person you trust. Live on the same block instead of in the same city. Simple changes like that move us closer to interdependence.
Finally, we must get better at rupture and repair. I take this from the psychiatrist Curt Thompson: trust is built on rupture and repair. Trust does not grow when nothing goes wrong; trust grows when something doesn't work. It may or may not be someone's fault, but when something is not working, we repair it together. And then we learn, okay, the next time there's difficulty or the next time there's a failure, or the next time there's a betrayal, maybe we can make it through that, because we made it through this together. Pursuing that kind of relationship is something that, honestly, if you have money and devices in the Western world, you can always opt out of it. But the more we pursue it, the healthier our lives will become as persons.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.