Emblem: Active Love: Hospitality & Friendship

Dr. Paul Mueller reflects on loneliness and hospitality in our modern culture.

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We live in the age of loneliness. The Survey Center on American Life found that more than one in ten survey respondents in a 2021 survey reported having no close friends. And among young people the number is even higher. A different survey in 2019 found about one in four millennials reported having no close friends and almost a third of those in their 20s and 30s reported feeling lonely most or all the time. But deliberately fostering deep friendship where we practice active love works against this trend.

The decline of community, family, and other institutions has been well-documented by thinkers like Robert Putnam, Neil Postman, Robert Nisbet, Charles Murray, J. D. Vance, and many others. Social media, endless entertainment options, declining family formation, and workaholic culture are often blamed for the rise of loneliness. But on a personal level, why do so many of us struggle to form close friendships? Let me suggest that the struggle stems primarily from our lack of intensive and uncurated time with others.

By intensive I mean quantity and quality time – interacting with people regularly and sharing meaningful elements of our lives. No formula will tell you how much quantity or quality time you need to create or sustain friendship. It varies by person and by how much relationship already exists. But most people give neither the quantity nor the quality necessary.

We also need uncurated time. Social butterflies can still struggle to form deep friendships when all their social interaction is highly curated – that is to say, limited to the venue, activity, and duration the person wants. How deep can things really go over dinner or while watching a movie or playing a game together? Although these interactions can be revealing, most of us are able to be on our best behavior or to pretend that we are fine, perhaps even “living the dream,” for an hour or two a couple times a week.

Have you ever wondered why people tend to form such close friendships in college? Well, they spend intensive and uncurated time with others – sharing classes, meals, social activities, living space, etc. They have overlapping networks of friends and acquaintances. And they see one another in many different circumstances. But after college, or after getting married, or after having children, most people struggle to form close friendships because they see fewer opportunities to share living space, even for brief times, with others.

Yet sharing space is so important! Our personalities are rarely on full display over dinner, or on a play date at the park. They are not fully expressed in conversation after church gatherings or over the phone. And they certainly find limited expression in online spaces like social media.

Yet a key part of friendship is knowing and being known. What are you like after the kids go to bed? Or first thing in the morning? Or in the midst of breaking up a fight between your children? What do you like to do in your spare time? When do you read the Bible and pray? What routines do you have for parenting or for work or for life? How do you deal with stress, frustration, fear, failure, or loss?

Talking with someone about these questions is good – observing them living out the answers to these questions is much better.

Obviously, we cannot welcome others into every corner of our life, nor should we. Nor can we welcome everyone into our life – we are limited beings after all! But most people don’t invite others into any part of their life except for brief, structured, curated times.

So, how can we work against a limited and curated social life? My wife and I have found hospitality to be a key ingredient to fostering deep meaningful conversations and, by extension, friendships. Our first apartment was a 600-square-foot one bedroom in the Washington D.C. area. It was a great size for us, but there wasn’t anywhere to put guests. Yet guests we had! During the two years we lived in this apartment, we probably had over two dozen people visit and stay at least one night. They would sleep on the couch or on an air mattress in the middle of the apartment.

Still, many of our social activities at the time like church services, community group, Bible study, and occasional game nights rarely fostered deep relationships or conversation. Most of our time was spent catching up on the details of each other’s lives and talking about the latest news.

But when I took the job at King’s, we decided to take a more radical approach to hospitality and community. We chose to live in Harrison, New Jersey (about 50 minutes from campus) because we could afford to rent and later buy a house there while still being close enough to downtown that students would come out for dinner.

That first academic year we had 3-6 students over for dinner about twice a week every week. Many dinner conversations with students didn’t go anywhere beyond that evening. But having students over for dinner laid the groundwork for our best and deepest friendships with students. Eventually many of these students babysat our children regularly, visited us in Colorado over the summer, and a few even lived with us during the school year.

Hosting dinners twice a week, while having two children under three, taught us a few things:

  1. You cannot keep your house as clean and pristine as you would like. If the cleanliness of our house was a prerequisite for having people over, we would rarely have people over.
  2. You don’t have to do everything the possibilities in the future. I mentioned how we hosted people in the living room of our small apartment when we were first married. In recent years we have had people live with us though our house is full of children! It can yourself – most people are happy to chip in with food, setting the table, washing dishes, or most importantly, playing with and reading to small children.
  3. Sometimes the most important part of hospitality is not the conversation, but the experience. When students came over, they saw how we lived, what our marriage was like, and how we cared for our children.
  4. It helps to have some structure or questions planned ahead of time – just keep them simple.
  5. Deep conversation and friendship take time. Having dinner with people or hanging out periodically is much less effective than spending concentrated time together over several days and nights – and sharing living space.

There is no silver bullet to making friends. But practicing radical (by today’s standards) hospitality is a good start. Commit to having people over, even when things might not be as put together as you would like. Invite people to visit and stay overnight. Think about whether you have the means and capacity to have someone come live with you for a while (or go live with someone else!).

You should do these things thoughtfully, of course. Having someone live with you is not trivial. But many don’t even consider the possibility. Nor do they make plans to create the possibilities in the future. I mentioned how we hosted people in the living room of our small apartment when we were first married. In recent years we have had people live with us though our house is full of children! It can be done.

Living with others is the most intense form of hospitality. But there are other ways to practice purposeful hospitality before diving in the deep end. Vacationing with other
families, especially if you can share space, creates intensive and uncurated time together. Committing a night or two a week to hospitality is another good step. Set up a regular gathering, even remotely, if necessary, with a few close friends.

We all need intensive and uncurated time together for sustained conversation where we can know and be known. My family spends concentrated time with close friends from college every year or two. With eleven kids under ten years old between the three families, you can imagine some of the logistical challenges. Yet we gather precisely because of all the kids.

Young children are great blessings from the Lord, but they also mean frequent interruptions. But good conversation, especially one including both parents, takes time to unfold and cannot be sustained with frequent
interruptions. Our best conversations nearly always occur after all the children are asleep – assuming all the adults are still there and haven’t gone home…hence the need for shared space.

Active love means more than wishing others well. It means more than hoping or desiring friendship and community. It means taking concrete steps to ordering our life and habits in ways that welcome people into conversation and fellowship. That can mean sacrificing how many shows we follow. It can mean adding a bit more to our monthly food budget. It might mean being a bit more tired at the end of
the day.

It can also mean changing our long-term plans. Space is a resource to manage and develop with an eye to practicing loving others. As an example, we bought and developed a property in the mountains of Colorado, The Abbey, to create greater opportunities for others spend meaningful time with us and with each other.

So, if you’re ever passing through Colorado, be sure to let me know. Perhaps we can find some intensive and uncurated time to spend together.

Dr. Paul Mueller is an associate professor of economics at King’s and co-owns The Abbey Bed and Breakfast with his wife, Kathryn, in Leadville, Colorado.  


This story is from Emblem VII, our annual magazine. Read the full magazine here

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