This is a word some of us often take for granted. In an ever-expanding, yet ever-isolated world, it seems many of us are losing the sense of how important community is, what valuable functions communities serve when they work together, sharing information, knowledge, thoughts. Whether it’s new mothers learning that yes, it really is normal for babies to poop that color, or new farmers learning best topsoil conservation practices, we thrive when we support each other.
This capitalistic society we’re in send a strong message of “every man for himself, cling to what you have because it gives you an edge! Give nothing away for free!” This is, of course, bullshit. It is antithetical to how we humans have evolved. We have been interdependent since before we were a species.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t amazing, intentional communities out there. I have friends who live in a co-housing development, a complex of condominiums designed for the very purpose of developing strong neighbor relationships. There is a common house where they cook and share meals, even. This is at once just the coolest idea, and something in which I cannot partake personally – I want my space. I love it there are people out there who make it happen, but I am sadly not among their number, just as I am not amongst the population who can eat olives without gagging, even though they are healthy.
Personally, I feel greed (which leads to competitiveness and Schadenfreude) is largely responsible for steering us away from each other as support systems, and helping us to “forget” from whence we came.
Although, for me, it’s not so much a matter of “forgetting” as it is a matter of never having really understood it in the first place.
That may sound somewhat silly, but hear me out.
Certainly, I have long understood on an intellectual level The Importance of Community, but I haven’t ever really experienced it. In fact, I have actively avoided most opportunities for Community in my life.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve really wondered about the far-reaching impacts of being an only child. First and foremost, I didn’t learn how to participate in the everyday give-and-take with people I live with all the time. I had a close best friend across the street, and while we spent many hours together outside of school, we didn’t live in the same household. I sometimes longed for an older brother, but on the whole, I was fairly content being spoiled and having my parents’ attention to myself. This didn’t really prepare me well for the world in many ways, but it’s how things went.
My parents didn’t really socialize much, and especially did not often have guests over to our home. Our house was generally very quiet. I didn’t learn the art of entertaining guests in the least. I spent a lot of hours self-amusing, and learned to live pretty much exclusively in my own head. It’s hard to come out of that immersive, comprehensive inner dialogue and try to have in-depth, meaningful conversations with other people when I haven’t had a lot of practice.
I am no good at smalltalk. Not at all. It makes me uncomfortable and I feel pressured to come up with something to add to those kinds of conversations, but only rarely can I easily play along with the pitter-pat of smalltalk most people seem readily able to do. Part of the reason I stopped going to hair salons was exactly that – I was held captive by some invariably chatty hair dresser for an hour, undergoing this onslaught of chit-chat in which I had absolutely no interest at all.
Our family was pretty self-sufficient. My mom dragged us to church now and then in my early childhood, but I think we stopped going well before I hit middle school; neither Dad nor I were into it. I went to ballet classes from when I was four until I was about twelve, but was always the odd girl out. In school, I had plenty of friends, but I think I was probably one of the bossy, almost snobby, kids. I had friendships with kids in a lot of different social circles, but I wouldn’t call myself “popular.”
I was on the swim team all four years in high school, and had a few good friends there, but still did not feel a strong part of The Team. I managed the boys’ swim team, and felt more at home there in ways.
At Umich, freshman year, I had my Mary Markley Dorm Tribe, but I lost touch with most of them, because I didn’t understand how important it was to hold onto people. I hadn’t had any role models in this regard.
In college, I didn’t talk to academic advisors or counsellors, because I thought I was supposed to be able to figure everything out for myself just fine. I always had, why should this have been any different? Well, it was different, and I did need help. Still, I carried on, oblivious. In my later Ann Arbor years, I met a wonderful group of people called The Stilyagi Air Corps, a bunch of Science Fiction fans who are very closely-knit, and who welcomed me into their midst. It was great, having people who actively planned activities together, although I overloaded on most of it and kept my few close friends close and largely stopped attending the group events. I was too drained by the busy-ness and noise of large groups of people having fun, which is sad. It’s still something I wrestle with.
The older I get, the more people I see come and go, the direr our straits become as a national community trying to find our way through the economic and environmental realities of our time, it becomes crystal clear to me: “Holy cow – we’re screwed if we don’t pull more together!”
On the plus side, there are people who have understood the value in supporting and teaching each other all along. There are a bunch of food and farming co-operatives, various interest groups and of course, the plethora of online communities. The online stuff is great in terms of ease and access, but I do feel there is a lot to be said for meeting with people face-to-face, engaging in conversation and sharing ideas and knowledge in real time.
Plenty of people get this – I haven’t on a real level until very, very recently. Several key people have helped me to understand how important social groups can be. My dad, formerly primarily a social loner like me, up until a few years ago had a few close friends and his golf league. However, after he became involved with the church my step-mom was attending, my dad as radically transformed his life. In addition to newly accepting God and Jesus into his life, he has also welcomed his church community. He volunteers much of his weekly time to the church and its charitable activities, such as Habitat for Humanity. At last, my dad has his Tribe, and it’s really wonderful to witness.
Barbara, Phawk’s mom, has also been a wonderful fount of information, both over email and in-person. She has repeatedly mentioned how important having a support system in place is, especially for things like the gluten allergy. Going it alone is harder, talking to people helps, she tells me. “Call me if you feel like you’re having problems.” That’s hard advice for me to take – calling someone involves intruding upon his or her space, in real time, for my pesky problems. My mom was careful to instil within me a very strong sense of “don’t be a bother to others” to an almost pathological degree.
Sitting in a window seat on an airplane with two people between me and the aisle is a practical nightmare, because, at some point, I will have to get up to pee, and I will have to have to disturb these two strangers from whatever it is they might be doing. Twice!
Conversely, because I try to be as quiet as possible around others, because I try not to disturb anyone, I am more annoyed than most people probably get when others are inconsiderate. This is something I am working hard on coming to terms with, because it’s a little out of hand.
Ok, it’s a lot out of hand, but mostly on an internal level. I hope.
So I’ve gone through life with a few close friendships, but largely avoiding getting drawn into large groups of people with any kind of expectations or commitments. Weekly or even monthly meetings? Too much work! Have a question about the garden? Surely, The Internets have the answer, why call MSU’s Cooperative Extension office and speak to another human? I have further and further isolated myself from the world and I’ve really robbed myself of much of the joy and satisfaction that comes from having a little tribe, however formal or informal, of people who share some of my interests and enjoying their company.
Even at home, Mike Neir and I often spend many hours in our respective offices, which are located on opposite floors – his in the basement, mine on the second floor. It’s not that we don’t enjoy each other’s company, of course, but we also each have strong pulls toward Alone Time. We like to den up in our offices, with our computers (or in my case now, with my book someplace quiet,) and carry on in our heads.
One of the exciting things about going back to school will be getting to know my fellow students in my program. Too, once I manage to secure my degree and (with luck) a job in the field, there will be people around me sharing my passions and interests, with whom I’ll get to collaborate. I never did this in the Information Technology field, really, because I just wasn’t interested in any of it. Linux and Perl conferences, various seminars and interest groups – I never once had the urge to go and get excited by any of it.
A conference on wind power? Heck yes! Seminars on bee-keeping? You betcha! Teaching urban residents interested in rooftop farming? Heck yeah! Sign me up – I can get into that.
Finding new or resurfacing interests is a pretty powerful high, and I know I’m on the intellectual equivalent of an endorphin rush right now; however, I think this is something I can sustain. I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be excited about something that challenges me. Last year, I took up knitting, sewing and quilting. This year, it was gardening and now The Life Changes. Before that, the last time I really got excited and invigorated by something was in 2007, when I took up snooker at an awesome local pool hall and met a group of really great guys. We played together more nights of the week than not. That was fun.
Before that, it was long-distance motorcycle riding in 1998.
Before that? I don’t even know. I was already in the grips of the IT monster at Umich. Giving up on one dream led me through a labyrinth of apathy and dejection, it seems.
I remember safari cards as a child, and my parents buying me all manner of science books and magazine subscriptions. I remember poring over them and soaking them up. But then, I drifted and forgot how happy that all made me.
Here we are, more than twenty years later.
Better late than never.
One thing I have found, almost invariably, is People Are Good. Sure, there are assholes and the evil-minded amongst us, but when it comes down to it, pretty much every community I have encountered and gotten to know is pretty stellar. Now granted, the groups I’ve encountered have been by choice and have centered around common interests, so naturally we tended to get along. Neighborhoods and other more diverse groups might be trickier.
We take our cues, and largely form our opinions, based in no small part upon those around us. Peer groups can challenge our beliefs or reinforce them, and how people react to challenges is, I feel, more important. Do they conform to that with which they don’t agree, do they silently disagree, do they voice their differences of opinion?
I understand now, far better than I did as a teenager of course, why parents want their kids to hang out with other kids who are “good influences,” whatever they might feel that spectrum of “good” might be. Being surrounded by people who model different behaviors and thoughts is a powerful influence, and it takes a strong person to resist the pull of The Group.
I have often said “I hate people,” but that’s not really the case. I adore people as individuals; it’s when they start forming en masse and following GroupThink that I get alarmed. A Person is a pretty rational being. People tend not to be, particularly if there is fear or anger involved. The power of peaceful demonstrations whallops me in the face now – a group of people, protesting against something they believe very strongly in, sometimes being harassed, arrested or actively beaten, who refuse to act in anger? How amazing and profound is that? How many of us could do it?
Too many of us have this completely false “us vs. them” mentality set up, and I fall victim to it myself. Sometimes, I just get angry with my conservative friends, rather than allowing their experience to inform and enrich my own. Which is not to say that sometimes my friend Ben H. doesn’t deserve a smack on the back of the head and a, “you utter dumbass” from time to time, but I can be more tolerant of his views.
Humans are a conflicted, troublesome species. As many have noted before, as a species, we are unparalleled in our cruelty to each other and to other living things, but we’re also capable of such extraordinary feats of compassion, bravery and kindness. Perhaps most of us fall into the middle through apathy or perceived helplessness.
I want to break out of the middle and flow to a better relationship with the world and my fellow human beings.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to become any kind of a social butterfly, but it does mean I’ll emerge from my den from time to time.