I’ve been on a bit of a minimalist kick lately, decluttering my house, my closet, my recipes, my priorities, you name it. While I don’t necessarily hold to minimalism as a whole-life philosophy, I find that it does offer some necessary push-back to our modern tendencies to be “ever expanding,” whether that be in our possessions, resources, opportunities, or social connections.
On that last item, social connections, I recently read an article explaining the theory of what’s called the Dunbar Number. A British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar posited (after some research on primates and combing through human records) that the greatest number of meaningful connections any one person can hold at a given time is about 150.
I have to admit I had quite the confirmation bias response to this article, because not too long ago I was explaining to my husband that I have social limits, and I simply cannot keep up with all-the-people, and I certainly don’t have energy for continually adding to the number of all-the-people to whom I feel some measure of social obligation.
With interest and perhaps some of that confirmation bias running through my veins, I decided I’d see where my current number of connections stood. I pulled out my brain dump notebook and began to write down all of the people with whom I have some meaningful or working connection. I started with family. That easily reached over 30 people. Then it was long-standing friends. You know, the people you may or may not see each year but whom you are committed in some way to maintaining for the long haul: again, over 30. Neighbors came to about 20. Homeschool connections almost 30. Church connections (which is small right now because we’re still new at our local church): about 15. And then I listed those who are a bit more distant but still qualify under this idea of meaningful connection: 60 or more. If you just add up the rounded numbers I’ve listed, that makes 185, more than the Dunbar Number (150). No wonder I feel a bit overwhelmed and like I can’t add any more.
But guess what kinds of people I didn’t add to any of those lists of contacts? For the most part, I didn’t include online-only relationships. There are seven ladies who make the cut because they are part of an online stand-up/accountability group. Other than those ladies, every other person on the list has some real-life, meaningful or workable connection (or has had in the past and therefore they are on the list).
What this little exercise demonstrated for me was twofold: One, there isn’t really any room for me to build or even maintain relationships on social media or other online platforms. No wonder I feel a little overwhelmed trying to keep up. Two, even these connections that I wrote down are pushing the limit, and I need to prioritize.
Now, Dunbar’s theory itself has prioritization built in. He suggests that any one person can have only about 5 people in their inner circle—these are loved ones, your most trusted and closest kind of friends (large families can adjust this number accordingly, IMO). Next up are “good friends,” of which you can maintain about 15 (or just ten more than the 5 closest friends we already mentioned). There are about 50 that can be called “friends” in a meaningful way before our own capacity is stretched enough to make the term “friend” less meaningful (I’m looking at you, Facebook). And then the next jump is up to that limit of 150 meaningful contacts. Beyond that, the study claims we could have face-recognition of up to 1500 people–but not meaningful relationships. I can’t say I’ve taken the time to test the limits on that last one.
Now, all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. The Dunbar Number is a theory, not gospel nor scientific law. But it is interesting, isn’t it?
I’ve titled this article “Titus 2 and the Dunbar Number,” so it’s about time I brought this back around. As Christians, we know that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And while Jesus insisted that anyone who we find in need of our help can be considered our neighbor (see the parable of the good Samaritan), in today’s times, we tend to be over-exposed to people and needs via the internet and social media, skewing our sense of responsibility away from our nearest neighbors and toward those far from us.
The impact here is both quantitative in that we’re compelled to give emotional energy toward more people than we have capacity for and qualitative in that we’re tempted to prioritize (at least in the moment) people far away from us, for whom we are not most responsible. The issue here isn’t that caring for people far away is bad (it’s good to be concerned for people in different places than we are), it’s just unnatural to have a constant reminder of them and to be pulled away from the people literally right in front of us or across the street. The combination of those quantitative and qualitative elements makes for a rather big challenge, especially if we take seriously the call to “love our neighbor.” We’re left asking Jesus for clarification, “Who is my neighbor?”
This is where Titus 2 comes in. Some people hate this passage because they see it as limiting women to the home, keeping them barefoot and pregnant, etc. But I think we can see it in a different light. Here it is for your consideration:
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.Titus 2:3-5
If we are to love God and love people, the first place that we ought to practice that God-honoring people-love is within our own households. What Titus 2 (and a few other passages) implies to me is that this temptation to concern and even distract ourselves with people “out there” isn’t something only modern social media mavens have experienced. Even women in the first century needed the reminder that a love that isn’t fulfilling its duty at home first is a hypocritical love that can lead to the gospel being blasphemed, the good news being spoken of as if it’s bad.
Now before anyone throws stones because they think I’m promoting “the patriarchy,” let me be the first to say that this principle holds true for men as well. It’s why elders are supposed to be good managers of their own households before they are recognized as leaders in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). It’s why a man that doesn’t provide for his own is called “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). The call to prioritize the people right in front of us is universal. This responsibility to one’s own household is why singleness is, for some, an effective state to be in for the sake of ministry to others: because the man or woman who isn’t tied down has more time and energy to devote to the Lord, which may include serving others beyond the home in a way that the married person simply can’t (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). But that’s more the exception than the norm for believers. Most of us are called to marry and build families to the glory of God.
So the reminder in Titus 2 to love your husband and love your children and focus on the work that must be done to keep the home running well isn’t slavish or limiting. It’s a sane call to put first things first. The calling toward home and family doesn’t necessarily preclude other callings, but it does take precedence over them.
And, if you think about it, all of this makes sense in light of Dunbar’s thoughts on human social capacity. We each may vary in terms of our social capacity, and some of us may need to cut back while others may need to stretch themselves. But at the end of the day, we all have limits. And we all have to choose how we will use the limited resources we’ve been given.
How about you? Do you feel our modern connected world pulls your attention away from the folks that matter most to you?
We may not need to dump online community and resources altogether, but might it be helpful to imagine what our priorities would look like if those things didn’t exist. Join me for a thought experiment?
If the internet didn’t exist, what would you want your family life to look like? How might you prioritize your husband? Your children? If you are in a different stage of life: your roommate, parents or siblings, or extended family?
If the internet didn’t exist, what would you do to get to know your neighbors? To be a blessing to them?
If the internet didn’t exist, what would you do to get to know the people at your church better? How might you reach out to discover needs and meet them? In your church and your local community?
If the internet didn’t exist to make long distance relationships many-and-easy, who would you 100% want to keep in touch with–even if it meant more effort?