The suicide epidemic. Vanishing jobs in a mobile economy. Twitter rage and politics. Nebraska football versus Oklahoma Sooners football. These are just a few of the compelling topics covered in Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, a new book by U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
In his winsome style, Sen. Sasse diagnoses some of the major problems plaguing American society today, before he offers concrete and helpful solutions.
He begins his book with a powerful story out of Chicago, when a devastating heatwave in the summer of 1995 cost more lives, by some accounts, than the Chicago fire of 1871. “Coroners initially counted 465 dead, but many of the dead weren’t discovered until weeks later, when the stench of decomposition oozed from homes and apartments.”
Among those most likely to have perished from the heat were elderly people—men in particular—living alone. No one—no family, neighbors, a community—went to check on them, as they perished. Some of those men found dead even sadly had letters sitting by their side, written to their estranged children, with woeful words reaching out over broken relationships.
“Loneliness.” Sasse says, “Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us. What’s wrong with America, then, starts with (that) one uncomfortable word.”
Sasse notes the many trends contributing toward loneliness and cultural upheaval. Some factors include our high-tech dependency. Other factors include the decline of church attendance, and even Friday night local football game attendance (Sasse himself is the son of a coach).
As a politician, known for being critical of his own party (Republican) and other parties, Sasse offers keen insight in this area. Talking about the exaggerated and hateful conversations we see on social media like Twitter, Sasse says:
“Deep, enduring change does not come through legislation or elections. Meaning change comes as lots and lots of individual minds are persuaded and hearts changed. Deep change allows people to change their minds without needing, first, to “eat crow.” It tolerates provisional and partial agreements. It’s the logic of neighbors who live side by side. It’s the logic of the lone-term, which respects the dignity and agency of debate partners.”
He continues, “Warriors view the present moment as make-or-break for all time—but neighbors do not. Neighbors see today’s conversation not as the last discussion we’ll ever have, but as a precursor to tomorrow’s. We can and will visit again. We can continue talking, and listening. We can be open to future persuasion—and to being persuaded. We need not win everything by force, and we need not win everything right now.”
We hear that Sasse believes life is about more than politics. He talks extensively about economics. He echoes an economist’s view that, in America today, there are the general groups: the rooted, the mobile and the stuck. In these last two areas, he offers the best insights. In our hyper-educated age, the mobile economy has led successful people to bounce from one large city to the next, never really setting down roots or building community. There are those, conversely, that have few economic options and are stuck in life.
Beyond these powerful social diagnoses, Sasse offers powerful stories and anecdotes along the way, along with helpful ideas in the book. To list a few, he says “set tech limits;” “have more family meetings at dinner;” “buy a cemetery plot;” and “we need more tribes” (i.e. community). I will invite you to read the book to hear what each of these fully means.
As Christians, we know the ultimate solution to loneliness is relationship. Relationship with Jesus Christ and the Body of Christ. In this new book, Sasse, himself a Christian, has provided a persuasive book that, for those who take it seriously, could move American society from seeing others as the enemy. Move us away from seeing others as “them” and toward the idea of “we” or “us.”