Sense of Community

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 NIV

We speak much about “community” in our modern era, however in our society today we can be surrounded by people and yet experience infinite isolation.

With everything being handled for us in the affluent West, we have forgotten the simple meaning of collective purpose. Our mantra, “The government should provide” is heard everywhere, everyday.

1 Timothy 6:10King James Version (KJV)

10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

It isn’t that money is inherently evil, but that it allows people to isolate themselves and become less interdependent on one another. Instead of hunting together and sharing the spoils so that everybody has enough to eat, or taking turns helping out in one another’s fields, we drive to work to make money, drive to the grocery store to buy food, and then drive home to prepare meals perhaps never interacting in all that time with a single one of our neighbors. Now you can even enjoy pre-cut, pre-measured ingredients in delicious meals in a box delivered to your door.

Sunday was a Day of Rest, a day for family and families were considered the basic building blocks of society. We didn’t abdicate our parental responsibilities to our schools, daycare and police to raise our children. Families ate meals and attended events together; we even had actual face to face conversations. Today if you want to talk to your child you have to send them a text message.

So called technological advancements have irrevocably altered society. Cell phones cause a distraction for children in classrooms, drivers on the road; they can be addictive and disconnect us from the social world. The car has dispersed our society. If you can work 50 miles away from where you live, you’re not going to have very strong connections to your community. You spend most of your time someplace else.

In days gone by we were aware of our neighbour’s circumstances and would share our food, our labour, our possessions and even our ears to listen when the need arose. We didn’t look to the government to provide for our every need. Rates of depression and suicide are higher in modern society than in poor agrarian communities. Can you have that sort of altruism for your neighbours in a peaceful suburb, where everybody has plenty of food, and there’s plenty of water bursting out of the sprinkler to keep the grass green?

Safety and stability really don’t bring out the most sterling human qualities. Hardship and danger do. Natural calamities challenged communities in the developed world brought them together without being commanded to.

During the devastation following Katrina or more recently flooding in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, some people are describing as the “100 year flood” and Alberta’s wild fires, citizens, given the chance, perform remarkable acts of service and relief without guidance. Tyler Warman, the mayor of Slave Lake told Global News, “Everybody is wanting to help. Everybody is wanting to pitch in, saying, ‘I have a room ready. Who do you need me to feed or look after?’”

The lesson is not what citizens do in such a moment as much as what they feel. They experience a sense of togetherness, of human bonding, on such a collective scale as to make people desire such emotions on a longer-term basis once everything is completed.

In an influential 1986 study, McMillan and Chavis identify four elements of “sense of community”:

  1. membership: feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness,
  2. influence: mattering, making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members
  3. reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs,
  4. shared emotional connection.

But it’s a sophisticated world and we need to broaden out to become part of it, we are told. Yet the more we reach for such a life, the more we long for a sense of closer community, of deeper companionship, of home. Ultimately it is about a sense of being needed, and a feeling that we are contributing. That’s why disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.

I believe this need, or more specifically the lack of it, contributes to a growing percentage of the mental illness and psychological challenges of our modern lives. We are being stretched so much by modern demands that we have been ignoring that need for belonging that thousands of years of evolution have built into us.

Unfortunately there’s no going back, no closing of Pandora’s Box.

We are left with similar feelings to Vincent van Gogh’s: “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.”