1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; 2. [mass noun] the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common
I’ve been thinking about communities a lot lately. There seems to be the view that society, certainly Western developed society, is losing its sense of community. The newspapers love to report the stories of people found dead in their homes months, even years, after they died. They point to the destruction of the neighbourhood, the lack of care for one another, the individualistic mindset of our society.
These stories are tragic, there is no doubt about that. And there are obvious failings somewhere in the system that these lonely deaths occur at all. But those who claim that our sense of community is lost are, I suspect, caught in an outdated notion of what constitutes a community.
There was a time when the chief communities people belonged to were the streets where they lived and their church. Now, people often don’t even know the name of their immediate neighbour and participation in our churches, for the most part, is dwindling. But does this mean that we lack community? Or have our communities just changed?
I think the truest sense of the word community is to be found in the second definition given above, much more so than the first. In a world of greater participation in employment with varied employment hours and town planning that favours privacy over interaction, the likelihood that a group of people who happen to live in the same area will form a communal bond is slim. So we find community through our interests and involvements.
Book clubs, choirs, sports clubs, theatre companies, parents who wait together in the playground at pick up time, even here in the Blogosphere… wherever you meet with people who share your passions, you form a community. The nature of any community is the support each member provides to the others. Each of these communities is capable of nurturing and upholding its members.
“Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.”
– David Spangler
Unfortunately, sometimes communities fracture. They are, after all, made up of human beings with all their frailties. A harsh word, a misplaced criticism, a lack of care in a moment of need, can lead to a poor experience of community. However, the mistake some people make is then to tar each similar community with the same damaged brush.
“I tried a book club once. When it was my turn to suggest a book, the rest of the group refused to read it and told me they didn’t read that sort of book. I hate book clubs.”
“I belonged to a choir once. Someone told me not to sing so loudly. I’ve never been back.”
If this is you, I encourage you to try again. If you’ve always loved to sing, find a singing group that welcomes you – I promise there will be one out there. If your first book club didn’t like your book, find some friends who do and form your own. The nature of the community is not grounded in the interest or activity that brought it together in the first place but in the people who form the community in the way they treat each other, care for each other, encourage each other.
How do you know if you’re in a true community? When someone asks you how you are and doesn’t believe you when you say “Fine”.
I suspect to some extent the view that community is lacking in our society is because it seems to have disappeared from the upper echelons of our society – most notably in our governments. This is no more evident than during an election campaign. Having just recently endured one, I was appalled at the blatant appeals to the worst aspects of an individualistic society – fear of the stranger, disrespect for the earth, the ‘what’s in it for me’ response – from both sides of the political spectrum. Once upon a time, a person would get involved in government because they cared about their community and wanted to make a positive difference. Now it seems, even at a local government level, people sign up simply because they want the power and prestige that comes with the political life and/or to push through a personal agenda to benefit the few.
So, if the leaders of our country are telling us refugees are bad or we can do what we like to the planet or we have no obligation to our poorest neighbours, how is the community as a whole supposed to function as it should?
By not playing along.
We form purposeful, caring communities of our own. We welcome strangers, help those in need, provide support to others even if it is just a cup of coffee to a struggling friend, and we share the joy of a common experience. Thriving communities are out there, defying the national trend to hunker down in our own misery, bringing light and warmth to thousands whether it be in a group of three or three hundred.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
If you’re not part of a community, get involved in something you feel passionate about, whether it’s singing, tennis, knitting or collecting lollypop wrappers and gather like-minded people around you. Being part of a community can be life-giving, life-affirming and life-changing.
I want to say this is a truly beautiful post — without sounding gushy or cheesy — but I’m struggling for words.
I think about, and anguish over, the idea of community a lot (all the time, obsessively) and found myself reading this saying “yes, yes.” Your point about politics at all levels abandoning community particularly resonates. New Zealand has a slightly better track record with refugees than Australia, but in so many other ways we are “led” by people who seem to have taken Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous quote: “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.” — and stripped it of everything after the word “society.”
And of course you are right; we need to form and sustain our own communities, of interest and passion. That is necessary for emotional survival, but I can’t help thinking that the physical communities of our less travelled, internet-less grandparents did better at ensuring physical survival also.
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Thank you for this very insightful comment, Su. Did you ever see the “Pioneer House” series? It was interesting to see people have to go back to a time when they were very reliant on forming a physical community in order to survive. We’ve become so individualistic. No doubt a result of the political attitude you’ve quoted. But we really do need each other if we are to live meaningful and… what is the word I want?…. safe? secure?…. lives. Safety and security has been hijacked by the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee element but it SHOULD mean caring for each other so that we can all live in the best possible way.
I totally agree. We have been really fortunate to raise our son in a community that, although part of a large city, has maintained a real “village” feel. He has had so much more freedom to roam and have an outdoorsy childhood because we have always known that there were people around who know him and would look out for him. The flip side is that he’s always known that if he misbehaves, we’ll get to hear about it pretty quickly. It’s obviously not a perfect idyllic place (far from it), but as we make plans to move on, I am increasingly aware of just how good our lives have been because we feel a sense of belonging and how important such communities are. The challenge of course, is to find a new community that we can become part of and enhance with our presence. 🙂
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This was beautiful reading, education and empowerment. Lovely!!