Ruminations on Community

a top down view of a suburban neighborhood

I’m living, at the moment, with my parents, in a small gated residential community. I’m sure you know the type – a series of houses slightly varied of look and layout, packed together along a few winding lanes which all meet up with one another, all encompassed by a gate in which there is one entrance and exit zone. My parents moved here just under a year ago, and they are, unsurprisingly, in the younger half of residents for all that they are encroaching upon their Medicare years. A constant refrain I hear these days is my father’s lament that the people in this community don’t wave to each other. Now, I walk through the neighborhood every day, companion to the faithful family hound, and I run into many of the neighborhood’s other dog companions, who are, with the rare exception, quite friendly.

And it is true, as well, that my dad has the long acquired habit of getting to know his neighbors well; it happened when he lived in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and again when my parents moved to a suburban cul-de-sac, and, slowly, it is happening here. My family’s nickname for him is Mrs. Kravitz – he is perhaps not quite so annoying in his nosiness, but he likes to know what’s happening nonetheless. This interest in knowing his neighbors has enabled numerous positive interactions; I’ve seen them stop by to borrow tools and ask for home project advice, and in the snowy Chicago winters one of our snow blower owning neighbors never failed to stop by and help us clear our driveway. It is a certainty, however, that his expectations for neighborly interaction are high. But, as one drives through our current neighborhood, it is noticeably bare of people, and I could more likely tell you which cars belong to which house than the faces of the individuals who live there. And my dad is right – people passing rarely wave.

What I want to think about is what community means these days, and how it is practiced. As FJVs we have spent time living in small intentional communities, which are very tightly focused on the people we share a house with. But, as it is surely the case that we are meant to carry the four JVC values out into our lives with us, I wonder what it means to bring our experience of intentional community out into the communities around us, not just with our housemates, but in our local neighborhoods, in our cities, states, and in our nation. And across the globe.

In his recent piece “A Nation of Weavers,” David Brooks explores what he considers to be the crucial problem facing our national society today – social fragmentation. The social fragmentation is evident in our national community’s discord, the strife and slander evident in all arenas. This social fragmentation is the result of an epidemic of social isolation, the “lack of healthy connection to each other,” which results in a “culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, shaming, and strife,” which results in 47,000 suicides a year, and 72,000 deaths from drug addiction. Brooks believes that this social isolation is rooted in “the excesses of 60 years of hyper individualism,” in which we emphasis the value of “personal freedom, self-interest, self-expression, [and] the idea that life is an individual journey towards personal fulfillment.”

It is the emphasis of these values which have shaped the habits we practice daily, in relation to our communities. And while none of these values are bad in and of themselves, their prominence at the expense of other values (such as those Brooks lists as Weaver characteristics), leads to neighborhoods in which we don’t actually see, interact with, or know our neighbors. Brooks argues that we can address this crisis by shifting the characteristics we value. He argues, in fact, that there are those already working towards this social shift; these individuals are defined by an ethos which values relationship over self, they are passionate about their local community, and they continue to show up for that community day in and day out.

What strikes me about this description is how they bring to mind fellow Ruined Report contributor Cami Kasmerchak’s piece on community and commitment, which poignantly captures the triumphs and travails of living in community, and its fluid nature which moves through intention, and action, and commitment. Cami shares how her community was founded on each member’s commitment to continue show up for one another, day after day. It was in the practice of being there for one another that the community came to exist, in times of celebration and grief, in annoyance and in distraction, in trepidation and courageousness. “Until community asks you to show up in the midst of all this, there is no real community at all.”

What I want to think about is what it means for us, in our daily lives, to be committed to building community within our neighborhoods and localities. Does it mean being committed to smiling at and waving to those whom you pass on the street? Does it mean being committed to opening up small talk with your neighbors, or making a concerted effort to pay attention to their lives? And what does it take to remain committed, as Cami writes, “in celebration and in grief, in annoyance and in distraction, in trepidation and in courageousness.” Lately, it certainly feels as if we have everything at stake – our societal structure, our livelihoods, our morality. I’d love to hear your stories about building community, and your ideas for the ways we can practice the intention of community everyday.

Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash