Has this generation lost its sense of community?

There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater when Kenneth Branagh looked out on a sea of pleasure craft heading toward the beaches of Dunkirk and, with tears in eyes, said, “It’s home.”

Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940 evacuation of the British army from the French coast – an evacuation completed by private British boats requisitioned by the Royal Navy. In a movie that draws attention to the community and one’s duty to neighbors and country, it’s a line that cannot be ignored.

Throughout the film, the commanders waiting at “The Mole” to usher soldiers onto ships mention how clearly they can see across the channel and view the white cliffs of Dover.

Steeped in British patriotism and nationalism, Dunkirk is also a reminder of how soldiers are also victims. We watch as the men are confined to the beaches, bombed and attacked; we watch as they drown. Unlike many war movies, Dunkirk capitalizes on this impotence to drive home the point that it was civilians who rescued the soldier-victims, not the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force; these are the men saved by their homeland, by the community.

That was the message I took away from Dunkirk: “It’s home.” Communities come together – home doesn’t forget the soldiers (their neighbors) who have joined the cause out of duty and love for their nation. But as I left the theater, I was struck by the question I took away: Would the same hold true today? Would “home” band together to rescue its own?

In one of the many orientations that I’ve attended in these past weeks for the start of the Fall 2017 semester, I was told that loneliness has become commonplace for millennials and centennials (or Generation Z). According to data from the General Social Survey, the number of Americans reporting “zero” to the number of confidants they have has tripled since 1985. “Zero” was the number reported by almost a quarter of people surveyed. And yet, psychologists at the University of Oxford say that individuals need between three to five vital friendships for optimal well-being.

The emotional support of friends and strong social relationships is necessary for survival in the world. Research shows that these relationships support mental health and immune function, and reduce stress, according to sociologists at UT Austin. And yet, recent generations have proven difficulty in cultivating lasting friendships. This, in turn, leads to a sense of an isolated community where the individual reigns supreme and the needs of the individual surpass those of the community.

As I look over the sea of incoming students, I don’t exactly see students talking to one another. Sitting at a bar talking with friends, we looked out onto the patio and watched as a group of college students sat in a circle. There had to be at least eight of them, but they were all glued to their screens. Not a single one of them looked up to interact with another in the group. It was the oddest experience to watch. As we walked past them to our cars, we overheard them saying something about Pokemon. Rather than cultivate social bonds in person, they were relying on the Internet to foster social connection.

But to what extent is this truly a connection? Mental health is declining; substance abuse has become an epidemic. These are just a couple of warning signs that arise from the larger epidemic of isolation plaguing the younger inhabitants of society. So, do we have the same sort of community today? I don’t think so. Is today’s community necessarily any better than 70 years ago? I’m honestly not sure, and maybe that was one of the takeaways from Dunkirk.

Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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