When I moved to New York in 2017, I was naive about urban geography. Coming from rural New England, I thought that city life would give me easy access to all the excitement and friendships I’d seen on TV. I imagined checking out museums after class or making a quick hop from Manhattan to Brooklyn for a party. My friend Ana lived in the city, so I thought I’d see her all the time.
It turns out that Ana’s place, in Far Rockaway, is an hour and a half from my place in Morningside Heights — on a good day. The museums are closer, but taking a cross-town bus after a day of classes would be a pain. New York is full of paradoxes: Manhattan is a compact island that’s always expanding, contracting and reinventing itself. Everything is close together, but it takes a long time to get anywhere. And it’s full of people but terribly lonely.
Even though I lived on my seminary’s campus during my first semester — among people who would eventually become close friends — I too was lonely. I sat in my room at night feeling like a hermit in my cell. The city was a living, breathing thing around me. The 1 train rumbled by on the elevated tracks, keeping me awake. Drunk students lingered and laughed outside my first-floor window. The frequency of sirens made me imagine I knew about every emergency for miles around, like I could catalog all the suffering of Manhattan. The Amtrak wailed as it passed along the Hudson and I shivered; it was the same train that howled through the night in my rural hometown, hundreds of miles to the north. I was both connected to everything and cut off from it all, alone in my box of a room.
For many middle- and upper-class people of my generation, this is typical. We chase opportunities from city to city, imagining the lives that we can build and rebuild. The privilege of education, money and connections afford us the freedom to uproot ourselves. This is the American Dream, even for those of us who know that the American Dream is a scam. We — I — long to be one of those cosmopolitan citizens of the world. We relish in our ability to create lives for ourselves in all sorts of places, always chasing something new.
As my peers start to see the shadow side of this freedom, we react against it in small, defiant ways. We look for community in churches, bars, and book clubs. Craving connection, we carve out our little niche in the big city. We bond over how hard it is to build bonds.
I knew that the root causes of my loneliness were things like capitalism, globalization, individualism and the disintegration of community organizations. While I couldn’t do much about some of those things, I was in seminary because I believed in community. As a Catholic, I figured I had a leg up on my non-religious peers: I could just plug into a church that had spent decades, even centuries, building infrastructure for human connection. But it wasn’t that easy. Finding a left-leaning Catholic community proved harder than I’d thought. I hopped from Catholic parishes to house churches to Protestant youth groups, looking for a place to land. It took me a year before I finally started putting down roots at the Catholic Worker houses on the Lower East Side.
In part, my loneliness was a symptom of my urge to explore. Spoiled for choice, I searched for a community that met all my needs. If I’d stayed in rural New England, I would’ve gone to the local Catholic church. I would’ve met people by showing up in the same place week after week, year after year. If I settled on a community and put down roots, I could’ve built my home there. It is unrealistic to want a church that feels like home immediately. A home must be cultivated and sustained.
But that’s not the whole picture. At my rural college, I went to the local parish every week – and no one ever spoke to me there, either. The people seemed perfectly friendly, but I was just part of the stream of college students that passed through, year after year. I’d be there for a little while and then I’d be gone. I was part of the parish, but I wasn’t. The parish and I had both accommodated ourselves to transience.
I recently read “New Monasticism: What it Has to Say to Today’s Church” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Wilson-Hartgrove speaks from a Christian tradition that diverges from my own Catholicism in important ways, but he understands the Catholic Worker movement as part of a 20th century trend of alternative Christian community life that some call “new monasticism.” Toward the end of the book, he proposes that Christians should consult with their community before moving, considering how their absence will affect the larger whole.
He writes, “If our home is in God’s kingdom, we cannot pledge our ultimate allegiance to America. If God is our Father, the nuclear family cannot be our god. Instead, we’ve got to say that our primary commitment is to the church. But for those words to have any real meaning, churches will have to get serious about membership. We need to name our commitments to each other and develop a process to determine whether God is calling an individual to leave our community or whether the forces of the economy are simply tearing us apart.”
This both attracts and disturbs me. It chafes against my persistent individualism. I want the freedom to get a better job, go to a better school, build a better life. I want to see the world, meet new people, try new things. As a misfit from a rural town, the thought of being trapped makes my skin crawl. It’s easy to imagine how allegiance to a community can be abused or exploited.
Taking a step back, though, there’s something uncomfortably enticing about what Wilson-Hartgrove describes. What if our bonds were strong and deep enough that consulting our church about a move felt natural? What if our churches didn’t structure themselves to accommodate transience? What if we had everything we need right where we are?
In 2021 I moved to Chicago. I have spent the past year starting over, sitting in my room and listening to the life of a city around me. I’m making friends, visiting churches and rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic. I don’t exactly regret my move: I came here in search of new community, chasing connection to a new city, and I have found all the new joy that I imagined. It was hard at first, but I’m putting down roots. At the same time, though, I wonder: What if we didn’t accept loneliness as part of growing up?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Rampone is a writer from Vermont. She has lived at two Catholic Worker houses, an intentional community called the Women’s Interfaith Residency Program and the Fireplace Community in Chicago. Abby writes poetry, rescues cats, cross-stitches and supports climate justice movements like the fight against Line 3. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a Master of Divinity in interreligious engagement from Union Theological Seminary. She works for Call To Action.