My hands were full with grocery bags as I approached the door to my apartment building one afternoon late last summer. Normally at that point, I would have set a couple of the bags down to open the door myself, but right then someone was coming out of the building. As she walked out, she held the door open for me, and for a split second, our eyes met.
She had the warmest eyes and the kindest smile. She was around my age, possibly younger. I immediately smiled back. My body softened and took in the energy of something it so longed for during interactions with others, something particularly rare with strangers: warmth.
In that instant, so many thoughts ran through my head. I want to stop and talk with you. Maybe we could be friends. Do you even live in this building or in another one in the complex? Are you just visiting for the day? Will I ever see you again?
But there wasn’t time for proper introductions. She was just passing through, as was I. She was likely on her way somewhere, and I was headed inside with my groceries. The moment passed. An act of kindness and warmth remained just that—a beautiful moment, one that stuck with me but developed into nothing more.
An act of kindness and warmth remained just that—a beautiful moment, one that stuck with me but developed into nothing more.
At 39 years old, I’m technically considered a millennial. I grew up in times when it was still safe to play outside alone. I read encyclopedias at home before there were cell phones and the Internet. And yet I often feel my life experiences and old-soul nature just do not line up with my generation’s classification or the age on my driver’s license.
I am an only child, having lost both of my parents by age 31. A natural seeker, I’ve frequently been led into spiritual questions about myself and the world. This seeking—along with making a dear friend who is a Friend—led me toward Quaker ideals in the last few years. When my husband and I moved to the Philadelphia area almost two years ago, I felt it was the perfect time to look for a community of Friends. I started to regularly attend a nearby meeting and began to get to know a few members of its community.
There are many beautiful people in this community of Friends. Their sense of community with each other is warm and deep. Many have known each other for years, if not decades. Some joined the Society of Friends when they were my age or younger. Many are now retired, often from long careers where they specialized and grew, developing a particular skill set.
They’ve raised kids together and have seen their kids grow up; some have embraced becoming grandparents. Many have lived in the same region for much of their lives and have built long-term and consistent connections within and outside of the Quaker community. A handful of those my age are following in similar footsteps, often busy raising beautiful families.
My life experiences have been very different. I like children but am sure that I am not meant to raise them. I have a bachelor’s degree in classical singing, but with most professional audition age cutoffs at 30, I’m too old to go get the two additional costly advanced degrees and then foot the bill for all the auditions I’d need to go on to pursue singing professionally.
I’ve tried a handful of other jobs along the way, including writing. In all of those jobs, I worked for very low pay, some within toxic work environments. I’ve applied for dozens of jobs and have been met mostly with silence or an occasional form rejection letter. I’m currently unemployed and am extremely fortunate to have a supportive husband.
Locational stability has also been a challenge for me. The longest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life has been the 12 years in my husband’s childhood home before our most recent move. I had slowly become part of a close-knit community with a church there. That relationship quickly fell apart after my mom died, and I was led into a deeper inward seeking and searching.
While the community of Friends has been refreshing and welcoming for me, it’s come with some challenges. I know my old-soul spirit totally fits in here. Theoretically, it feels like one of the few places in the world where I should fit right now and yet I am seeking more.
I am seeking to spend enriching and joyful times with other human beings with whom I share similar values, beliefs, and interests. Yet I am also seeking to deeply know these other human beings and to be similarly deeply known.
I have discovered, however, that outside of Sunday morning meeting times and some monthly social or spiritual get-togethers, many Quakers lead very full lives. This is a challenge for newer attenders like me.
According to a 2012 New York Times article by style reporter Alex Williams, “Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?,” there are three conditions that sociologists consider crucial to making close friends. Those factors are proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.
My Quaker meeting provides these, to a point. My meeting is about a mile from my apartment, yet members are scattered throughout the surrounding area. Unplanned interactions can happen after worship but only for about ten minutes. After that, people transition to business meeting or our reading group or go their separate ways. We don’t often have the chance to let our guards down outside of monthly or quarterly events.
The conversation at these events often focuses on intellectual and spiritual discussion. I truly love this, but after a full year of attending, I still feel unknown by the great majority of people in my meeting. I also don’t feel like I really know them.
I’ve brought these concerns up with members of the meeting. Some have shared they feel the same way, even after having attended or been members for years. Thankfully my prodding has encouraged the start of a monthly fellowship hour after meeting.
After a full year of attending, I still feel unknown by the great majority of people in my meeting. I also don’t feel like I really know them.
But what happens outside of meeting when one doesn’t have a family to raise, or a family alive or nearby to tend to? What happens when one doesn’t have a work community, either due to retirement or other career challenges like mine?
What happens when hours turn into days and months mostly spent alone searching for decent-paying, non-advanced-degree work in non-toxic environments; searching for active shared-interest groups and fulfilling non-solitary volunteer opportunities; or searching for daytime communal activities that aren’t Mommy-and-me yoga classes, as beneficial as those are for their attendees?
What happens when there are infrequent chances for repeated offline contact and seldom any lasting locational stability? What happens when one really does learn to love being alone but still has a daily time limit before social interaction becomes vital?
What happens when a meaningful second of warm eye contact and an act of kindness at the entrance to an apartment building is so memorable because it happens so infrequently in one’s daily life?
Many Quakers understand how to answer these questions. They’ve created locational communities for themselves to provide for these needs. What intrigues me about these communities, among many other beautiful aspects, is that they are set up for a very specific time in life. And that is usually around the time of retirement.
It has been well-documented that there is a loneliness epidemic among those in more mature generations. What is only starting to be documented is that there is also a rising loneliness epidemic among millennials and even younger generations.
In his New York Times article, Alex Williams described how many young-to-middle-aged people, even those with busy careers and families, still struggle to make and maintain regular close connections. This past August Vox.com science writer Brian Resnick reported on a poll in which 30 percent of millennials said that they “always or often felt lonely.” In a 2018 Cigna study, members of Generation Z, those aged 18–22, had the highest scores in loneliness levels.
People may say that the main cause of loneliness in younger generations is technology overuse, and I agree that tech addiction is a concern. Phones and laptops are not genuine substitutions for in-person, meaningful connection. Yet I also believe that this issue is much more multifaceted.
Huge increases in the price of higher education and overall cost of living, combined with fewer well-paying jobs and many more low-paying jobs without benefits; frequent transitions and moves; cultural values of individuality over community; and isolated apartment buildings or neighborhoods without community spaces or organized group activities all contribute to modern loneliness.
It can be a spiritual experience to connect deeply with others in a community that shares our interests and values.
As a Quaker, this reality truly concerns me—not only for my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health, but for the health of my entire generation and all the ones younger than mine. The research is on my side: studies have shown that chronic loneliness can be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
It can be a spiritual experience to connect deeply with others in a community that shares our interests and values. We have chances to teach and to learn, to engage in meaningful intellectual discussions, and to revel in precious opportunities for play, fun, and unbridled joy.
To foster these opportunities, we really do need those three important factors of proximity, repeated interactions, and spaces to let our guards down—especially since our souls often don’t fit neatly into age groups.
Before my husband and I moved to the Philadelphia area two years ago, I tried to register for a young adult Friends retreat. I wanted to see what that group of Quakers was like and if I might fit in with them. Reading through the registration site, I felt awkward because the stated ages for the retreat were 18 through 35, and I was 37. But the form said it was okay if registrants were a little older.
I started typing out the registration form. I didn’t know what to put for the required monthly meeting line because I hadn’t started attending one yet. But it turned out I couldn’t complete the registration online anyway because my over-35 birth date was not accepted as a valid response.
I decided not to pursue the retreat registration further at that time. But I wonder what it would have been like if I’d gone. Would I have fit with the young adult Friends? Or would my old soul and life experiences have made me feel out of place?
Since entering this beautiful world of Friends, I’ve learned about some of their exemplary first-rate retirement communities, yet I won’t qualify for admission until the year 2042. So I’m still seeking more ways to better fit my younger earth age but fully old Quaker soul into this world.
I also can’t help but wonder this: If so much of my soul family is within the Quaker community—no matter if they are closer to my earth age or, as I’ve often found, they are 30 to 50 years older than me—how many other people might feel the same?
I know there have to be so many more in this world like me: more potential or current Friends who may or may not fit into the proper age groups but would fully fit into the proper soul groups. There have to be more who are deeply craving community and might actually be willing to set aside committed time—planned, at least for now—for more frequent interaction. Some of us are available during daytime hours as well as some evenings and weekends outside of Sunday mornings.
Since we all have this same deep human need, why not practice meeting that need with the Quaker values of love and kindness?
I continue to seek more in this world, and I hope I find more. Because I know one thing for sure, as I was reminded after making eye contact with that kind, warm face that late summer day: I know we all need to know others and to be known in order to survive in this harsh world.
Since we all have this same deep human need, why not practice meeting that need with the Quaker values of love and kindness—with more proximity, frequency, and personal openness? And why not group ourselves more into our soul families, where we can really feel seen, understood, and supported?
If we did these things, word might spread. And if it did, perhaps other seekers in the world might be drawn to connect to this beautiful world of Friends and maybe even stay. Hopefully they’d find very quickly that they’d fit right in.