The worst thing about America isn’t what you think

Lindsay Willett

I glanced across the restaurant table at my friend, a Clemson graduate student from India. We had planned to get together while she was in town for a summer internship and finally made it happen. As the meal wound down, she leisurely took a bite of pizza, and I seized the moment.

“So, what do you think is the worst thing about living in America?”

Sitting back, she described her town in India, where people in restaurants talk to one another across tables, even people who have never met before. Sometimes, people nose their way into other people’s business, but at least they have real relationships and a sense of community is maintained. My friend said that in America, people use smartphones to avoid any contact with strangers, and even awkward silences with people they know, which fosters a sense of isolation.

This is what she thinks is the worst thing about America?

She took another sip of beer, and I considered her wise-beyond-her-years observation. What are we missing in America that this student from a small town in India values so dearly?

Our conversation led to more discussions, ideas, and research about what God intends for real community, and ultimately love. Jesus said to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment. If we don’t love other people, the Bible says we can’t love God (Mark 12:31, 1 John 4:20).

There are many ways to love beyond our smartphone screens, but here are a few that have been helpful to me.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” (from Hebrews 13:2).

Almost every American child is taught not to talk to strangers, but what about when we grow up? With this childhood mantra instilled, we usually don’t give strangers a second thought. Smartphones make it even easier to keep to ourselves, and the instruction of Hebrews 13:2 is often lost.

The Bible says God “loves the foreigner residing among you,” who in Old Testament times was a stranger within a Jewish community  (Deuteronomy 10:18). Jesus also says loving strangers is one way we show Him love (Matthew 25:35-40). But we can’t notice these people, who are important to God, if we don’t look up from our phones.

Certainly be wise about new people you interact with, but it doesn’t hurt to ask the person ringing up your lunch how her day is going or to give your bus driver a smile. Pray for wisdom about who God wants you to talk to, what He wants you to say, and get excited about the new people and opportunities He brings into your life (Ephesians 3:20).

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (from 2 Corinthians 13:12).

OK, so kissing everyone we meet isn’t an American custom. But that doesn’t mean we have to fear appropriate, platonic demonstrations of love like the one this verse describes. Numerous studies have been performed that show how a simple hug or handshake builds trust, strengthens group dynamics, and promotes overall well-being.

Jesus gave this example during His time on Earth. He could have healed people verbally, but He often reached out to touch them (Luke 22:51, Matthew 8:3). He did the same to comfort His disciples (Matthew 17:7).

We aren’t avatars. No matter how many emojis we use, we can’t communicate the warmth of a hug or the squeeze of a hand over social media. We need people in our lives with shoulders to cry on — and they need us.

“Better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away” (from Proverbs 27:10).

Many of us have relocated after college, marriage, or for work, and in our technological world, sometimes it’s easier to prioritize long distance relationships than starting over. Smartphones offer plenty of social media platforms to stay in touch with the people we already know.

Yet Proverbs 27:10 says it is “better [to have] a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.” Can long distance friends and family be there to share a meal after work or to watch over your home when you’re out of town? Don’t miss out on supporting and being supported by local friends.

No number of pixels in your smartphone display can compare with the image of God person right in front of you.

Who knows if the smartphone sensation is the worst thing about America, but if it’s keeping us from loving the people around us well, it’s a bigger problem than most of us would like to admit. Don’t opt out of the physical world for a copy of it. No number of pixels in your smartphone display can compare with the image of God person right in front of you (Genesis 1:27).

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