Alone in the Crowd


“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”  – Charlotte Bronte

I was at the grocery store again and I couldn’t help but notice more family experiences that just made me keep thinking about it all.

  • There was that 6 year old standing by the butter yelling at the top of all of our lungs that he had “found it!” He made sure that everyone knew this three or four times. I watched as the woman who looked like she needed three naps pushed her cart toward his excited dance. I thought to myself, I hope the day never comes when they stop speaking to each other.
  • Then there’s the dad who has responsibility for his three little tiny girls walking around his ankles like kittens. He is focused on his mission, eyes searching, while they are running around and darting in front of everyone else – causing near misses and collisions right and left. He remains oblivious. His wife has obviously given just one simple directive, “don’t leave anyone behind when you come home.”
  • Watching the young (and older) couples filling their baskets together is always fun. Sometimes she is having to give a lot of directions and he is just there to do the pushing and pulling. Other couples look like they are on an adventure, planning a meal or getting their week organized. Every now and then there’s an older couple, one of them is confined to an electric cart and his/her partner is moving up and down the aisle finding the right item. They work as team to manage their life together.

I’m usually at the store by myself. It’s therapeutic. People say they see me there but I never notice, walking by, talking to myself, in my own world, watching the world around me.

The grocery store is a great place to see the American family in action. As I’m watching these people together doing the mundane tasks associated with life I think about where our society is heading. We are trending toward more fragmented families and choosing to live alone.

According to numbers from the most recent National Survey of Family Growth, more men (66%) than women (49%) agreed that it was better to get married than to go through life remaining single. Are men more frightened of loneliness? Are women less willing to settle for second or third best these days? This doesn’t mean that people are less willing to have children. The stigma of single-parenthood has dramatically declined.

This also means that half of women are willing to remain single. It’s become a more normal option to them – at least on a survey question.

The trend for many is away from marriage as a key component of the American Dream. It promises a high level of individual autonomy and control of one’s lifestyle. But there is a cost to both the individual and to our society.

I suspect that as the days go by I might see more lonely shoppers at the store and far less interaction to watch.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
Paul McCartney

About Randy Wilson

Professor of Sociology at Houston Baptist University I read, think and write about religion and culture in the United States. It's very interesting and very complicated but incredibly exciting. For many years I have been trying to figure out how people learn best (my students and myself). The classes I teach are always in a state of experimentation - trying to reorganize around what students bring to the table and where we have to go.

8 thoughts on “Alone in the Crowd

  1. I love the blog and agree with every point. I had a very good friend, Stephen Eberhard, who went to work at a large Houston law firm the same year that I did the same. He was brilliant, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and very ambitious. He and I were both the number 1 billers (the greatest number of billable hours) in our law firms every year that we practiced. People outside the legal profession may have difficulty fathoming how difficult this is to do, and it comes with a high price. Our extreme work habits ultimately and inevitably took a terrible toll on our health. I developed serious health problems before the age of 30, but my friend died of a heart attack before the age of 30. I am convinced that my being married saved my life.

  2. You’ll never be alone as long as you surround yourself with really good friends. I’d much rather have meaningful friendships that I can depend on rather than a marriage that could very well become a nightmare that is hard to escape.

      1. People would like us to believe that marriage is such a great thing that everyone should aspire to but really finding just one person to connect with and spend the rest of your life with is rare and shouldn’t be the goal for everyone. The unrealistic expectation that we must get married to have a happy life has led so many to marry just about anyone in order to not be alone. Well I don’t believe marriage is the cure for happiness. Being happy is bring surrounded with loved ones who can share in the adventures of life and that doesn’t have to include a spouse. I’m not married and I’m very happy with the life I have and I’m not going to waste any energy seeking a spouse. I’m not against marriage, I’m just not a believer that you have to feel alone if marriage is not in your future.

  3. I agree with the spirit of your comments. We have to find contentment where we are. I’m also concerned with our civilization as a whole. Fragmented families produce weak societies and unhealthy individuals. Survey after survey tells us that people do not prefer to remain alone, but are beginning to accept this eventuality. Doesn’t mean it’s their first choice.

    1. I think being single doesn’t equate to being alone. You can also be married and feel alone. It’s really all about having people in your life that make you feel connected. That can be a parent, sibling, friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, and kids. My belief is that even years ago when divorce was rare and the norm was to get married as soon as possible there were very many unhappy people but they weren’t allowed to say so out loud because they were shamed to keep the marriage going or shamed to hurry up and get married or something must be wrong with them. Today divorce isn’t looked upon so negatively and being single isn’t something to feel less than about. I think that’s why we see more of it. Not because of people are cynical about marriage. Societies will be strong when people show care for their fellow man and look out for each other. That goes beyond families and includes neighbors and communities. A healthy individual is someone who seeks happiness on their own terms and doesn’t look to emulate what they think makes others happy.

      1. You’ve touched on an age old debate. If you leave mankind alone, will he “naturally” just do the right thing? Or, does he need the regulation of society to civilize him? Marriage has been from the dawn of our history a social bond that we felt necessary in order to raise children, for economic survival and for the evolution of culture. Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule. And yes, today our culture has evolved to a point where we think of families as obsolete. But I’ll wager that as time passes in my life and yours, we will long for others who are obligated to us and to whom we can be obligated. That’s a lasting bond that’s rare in friendship.

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