Our Sense of Community is Dying

by Mark Thayer on April 9, 2018

We have lost our sense of community. In a modern economy where we are only dependent on a source of income and an efficient physical infrastructure, there is no immediate problem. A significant disrupture to either would demonstrate, quickly and painfully, our fragility absent a strong community.

“Community” is difficult to define. Geography was the original determinant, but technology renders this inadequate. Community might be better interpreted as that circle of people with whom we interact on a regular basis. For most, this would mean immediate family — those under the same roof — and those with whom we interact at our jobs. “Interact” is the operative condition, which because of social media and related Internet and communication technologies, forces an extension of the definition to include those with whom we interact only through these media.

But are these extensions really examples of genuine community?

We recently moved away from a wonderful neighborhood after living there for almost five years. Several neighbors became good friends, if “good” means that they will stop to talk if they see you outside, and will accept invitations to dinner or pool party-and-barbecue events. They made it a point to make our lives easier in the transition; when we no longer had a kitchen, dinner invitations were extended and gratefully accepted.

Once our household goods were on their way to our new home, I left the following day. My wife stayed for another week; her employer had asked her to remain for the additional time and there were incentives for her to do so. The additional week would run from mid-week to mid-week, with an intervening weekend. At a dinner get-together just prior to my departure, my wife and our hostess made plans to spend some time on that upcoming Saturday; a pedicure, some wine-tasting, and a drive in the country were on the list. They were excited about a girls’s afternoon together; a last bit of fun before time and distance lowered the odds of enjoying each other’s company.

That Friday afternoon, my wife called her to confirm the agenda for Saturday. Our neighbor declined with a list of unconvincing excuses; the tone of the conversation was as if my wife’s call were an intrusion. Overnight, the friendship was forgotten.

It would easy to let this imagined slight magnify itself beyond necessity. But let’s run with the assumption for the moment.

As my wife told the story, I could hear the disappointment in her voice. She was excited about the move but leaving the neighborhood was bittersweet, and she was looking forward to one last bit of fun with the woman in the neighborhood with whom she was closest. As she described the event, my mind drifted to an observation: we have lived there for almost five years; we have had these people into our home as invited guests on numerous occasions, we have gone out of our way to help them when there was a necessity and we had the ability — and yet, at the end, there is no one in the neighborhood my wife could call simply to raise the possibility of a spontaneous social get-together.

If community is solely defined by whom we spend time with, physically or virtually, then this might be understandable. Most of our neighbors work at a job out of the house, spending only evenings and weekends in their home, and by extension, in the neighborhood. Wakeful non-work time is spent almost entirely with family. Early on we decided that we would prefer to entertain at home rather than go out — local restaurants were too expensive and not really very good — so we extended dinner invitations to our neighbors on an improvised rotating basis. We learned that our behavior was unusual. The neighborhood had a history of block parties, but this was a once-a-year event. Neighborly interaction was limited to catching someone outside while walking the dog, or flagging someone down for a quick chat as they drove by.

This leaves us fragile. Work relationships only last as long as the job, and they are artificial. Few of us behave authentically at work; norms vary but everywhere there are unwritten rules as to what personality characteristics and behaviors are considered desirable. We tamp down any aspect of our personality that might come into conflict with these norms, and everyone around us is doing the same. We are play-acting, so we never really get to know anyone. Add the inevitable organizational competitiveness, and these relationships are weak, at best.

Virtual neighbors — I don’t have a better term for social media contacts, but “friends” is a term I would avoid as grossly inaccurate — are equally lacking. We aren’t our fully authentic selves on social media, and neither is anyone else, and the result is the same — community in name only.

All this is fine, perhaps even preferable, as long as the job is steady, your social media circle behaves with reasonable courtesy, and our modern infrastructure holds up. Disrupt any of these — lose the job, lose your Internet connection, break the chain on continual self-congratulation and validation on social media — and you will find yourself very alone, very quickly. Alone, we are weak.

Imagine a large-scale emergency; the exact details don’t matter. Focus only on the new reality that all of what we take for granted in our modern civilization is no longer there: fuel, water, electricity. Imagine the consequences: the transportation network breaks down, so grocery stores will run out of food in two days. Hospitals will run out of critical medications in as little as twenty-four hours. Depending on where you live and the season, it could get either uncomfortably cold or hot in your house, quickly. If you are not prepared, your immediate priority will be to secure some amount of food, water, and possibly fuel. You might have the help of capable family members, but this capability might be limited. You will need to be at least minimally concerned about your physical safety, as civil order will break down and emergency services will be occupied elsewhere. You can’t do all of this yourself. Your best and most readily available asset is your neighbor, and you don’t know him.

You don’t know if you can trust him. You don’t know what skills he might have that might be complementary to yours. You don’t know if he has the intestinal fortitude to face the reality of the situation, make some hard choices, and take appropriate action, all within the context of maximizing the potential of the neighborhood to weather the crisis. You don’t know if he’s willing to work with you, or if he’s a closet sociopath. And it’s a little late to start that conversation.

Conversely, if you knew your neighbor and he knew you — not that you necessarily had to be best friends, but far enough beyond mere acquaintance to have an accurate assessment of character — you’re vastly more resilient, and in a much better position to turn a survival situation into an inconvenience.

The physical reality of life on this planet has not changed much. The veneer of civilization, and it’s accompanying technology, is thin. Lacking connections to a real, physical, and proximate physical community, we are fragile and vulnerable. Investing in relationships, building a real and local community, makes us robust. The creation of strong local communities requires no special skills, only the ability to recognize the necessity and the willingness to act. The benefits accrue immediately — life is better when our relationships with those physically near are strong and positive. You might get a few more dinner invitations on those nights when you really don’t feel like cooking.

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