In Search of Community

 Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone. 

-Maya Angelou

Ever since the first hairless monkeys climbed down out of the trees and started hanging around bonfires together, we humans have had a profound relationship with “community”. Much of this relationship is founded on the essential truth that we NEED community to survive. This was more apparent in the days of our distant ancestors, because of things like lions and tigers and bears! It takes a community to fight off a vicious predator. 

For most of human history, the idea that we need community was not questioned. It was assumed. In fact, being exiled from your community was seen as a fate worse than death. But in the past several generations, we seem to have lost the immediacy of this need. We still have it. Even those who think they are living off the grid and not relying on their fellow humans for anything, couldn’t have reached their degree of isolation without help from others, even if it was simply the fact that they were raised by something other than a pack of wolves. But it seems less absolutely necessary, and is often balanced by a sense that “other people” take up a lot of our personal space and that we would really like a little bit less of them. 

Never-the-less, the need persists. The fact that it is no longer as clearly connected to our basic survival just makes it less apparent, and more confusing. For instance, if you need to have at least ten strong men to go hunting with so that you and your family will survive the winter, it’s clear that you need community and you don’t quibble about “what it is”, you just do your part to help out the rest of them so that you know they will be there for you as well. But when it FEELS like the only time you really need someone is when there is a refrigerator to lift, you may have less obvious motivation to help out others in need, and you may even question if you have a real NEED for community at all. 

As community has become bigger expanding from roving nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to villages, town, cities and nationstates – it has also become more abstract, perhaps because our actual contact with it on a daily basis has become less clearly articulated. In a small, traditional setting, you might engage with a group 20-50 other people on a daily basis. These encounters would be connected with work, play, socialization and getting from one place to another. They would include individuals of all ages, and heirarchical distance between the highest and lowest members of the community would not be very great. The depth of your interactions would vary, but you would know literally everyone in your community, with the reasonable expectation that they would remain a part of your daily life for as long as they – or you – lived. You would engage in a way that made you an unquestioned part of the community as a whole. Your sense of belonging would flow from this mutual recognition, and there would be no need to “find yourself”, because you have no sense of being lost. 

The situation today is quite different. There are probably an even greater number of people who you interact with fairly regularly, but only of few of them will be constants throughout your life. The quality of our interactions is based on this expectation of their short-term nature. We don’t assume that the fellow who checks out our food at the grocery will be willing to help us move our furniture when we need it. 

On the surface, this all seems fine. We live in a complex society, which has evolved over many thousands of years. Many of the needs that were once met by tightly knit community are now outsourced to various service industries, and yet – we still hunger for belonging, to be a part of the larger self which is community. 

Where does this hunger take us? Tune in next week and I will share my thoughts and experiences on that! 

 © Kenn Day 2017