But We Can Build It Back
I don’t think anyone would disagree that our society in the last few years has gone crazy. So many factors are involved, but I think one of the keys is that we’ve lost our sense of community. This is not “just” an American problem. But the situation in the United States is what I can speak to.
How did this happen? Like most things in the real world, it’s complicated. But I’d like to look at three areas briefly.
Humanity has always been on the move, beginning on the African continent and expanding to the ends of the earth. Through the mid-twentieth century this was done mostly in groups: families, tribes, villages, and nations. But after WWII the dynamics changed. More people became educated and/or trained for jobs away from where they grew up, and economics improved for the general population, allowing both incentive and affordability to move.
The downside to this was fractured families and fractured communities. Multi-generational households are gone. People don’t know their neighbors.
My baby-boomer generation of siblings and their children cover 4 states up to 1800 apart. Add in my husband and his current work location, and the total is 5 states and 3400 miles. Add two more states for his siblings, and you understand why I was astonished to work with a woman who had always worked within 20 miles from home and was 40 before she even travelled more than 100 miles from where she was born.
Television and movies have taught us to think that we know what people are like in New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, rural Nebraska, and the Louisiana bayous. But we don’t.
Whether it’s a carefully crafted sit-com, reality TV or the news, we only get skewed glimpses, often of people at their worst moments. Most people in Atlanta don’t live like the Real Housewives. Alligator hunting is not the most common job in Louisiana, let alone the Gulf Coast states. (You get the idea.)
And then came the internet and social media. We see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and say whatever we want to say—with or without facts—simply because we can. Meanwhile, our neighbors are strangers, we become estranged from our family members, and we isolate ourselves from the world around us with “us versus them” dichotomies.
The American Mythos of Freedom & Independence
The Founding Fathers sought freedom from an inherited ruler across an ocean who had no idea of what the colonists needed or wanted. But notice that they formed a new government of states. They weren’t seeking anarchy. They understood that humans form societies, and societies need rules and laws for the protection and benefit of all. Was what they built perfect? No. But they built in the ability to make changes, and the country grew. Has it become perfect? Obviously not.
The 19th century, with its emphasis on expanding Westward, glorified the explorer, the scout, and the pioneer. New beginnings. Even for those in the East, the concepts of building or creating something “with my own two hands” became central to the American identity. And everyone seemingly had a chance. Yet, the goal still was to build communities, whether it was a great city of manufacturing and commerce or the small town where you could sell your grain and buy goods you couldn’t make yourself.
Even the most stalwart cowboy or hardiest farmer needed other people. When I was growing up in Montana, the saying was you couldn’t call a place a town unless it had three bars and a post office. In other words, places to connect with people. Community. (A church was a bonus.)
As early as the 1890s, my German Grandfather was reading penny novels romanticizing the West and rugged individualism. Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour elevated the writing and storytelling, but the theme of the lone hero continued through the decades until it became both iconic with John Wayne and a caricature in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns and others. Later movies like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven challenged the stereotypes, but they were already ingrained in the cultural bloodline.
All of these elements took their toll, especially after WWII. Small towns bled their young to the cities where the jobs were. Cities expanded to suburbs, and the ties of family, neighbors, and church or synagogue that had historically held us together began breaking apart. And the frontier of endless resources and possibilities was gone. Yet the idea of picking yourself up by the bootstraps continues, regardless of how ridiculous that can be.
At first the idea of the neighborhood continued as kids played together with others on the block and went to school together. But as both affluence and mobility ticked up, so did separations. Everything from Stranger Danger to after-school activities have broken down neighborhood ties. Of the nine households on my semi-rural block, after 4-1/2 years I know 3 people’s names and have two phone numbers. Two others moved away in that time. Even people who still belong to a house of worship don’t walk there anymore.
Then, of course, came the COVID-19 pandemic. And isolation to the extreme.
We can get community back
In fact, we must build back community if we want to survive as a society. But how?
First, we must realize that we are not alone.
Even the most isolated person living off the grid is still impacted by other people, through goods that they can’t make themselves to the very air they breathe, which may carry traces of dust and chemicals from across continents and oceans. Most of us are much closer to others than that. That means that anything you do can and will have an impact on someone else—or many people—now or sometime down the road. The components of your cell phone and those solar panels have to come from somewhere. And I dare anyone to live without plastic, even off the grid.
Next, we make an effort to observe the world around us.
Consider the story of the 13-year-old who stopped his school bus when the driver had a medical emergency. In one follow up on I saw on television, they looked into why he stepped up and no one else did. The answer? He was the only student on the bus who wasn’t buried in his smart phone. Because he doesn’t have one. Several other students acknowledged they didn’t even know something was wrong until the bus came to stop on the side of the road. Think on this for a moment.
That’s right. Let’s take off our headphones, close the video games, music, books, or social media we’ve immersed ourselves in and look around. It’s hard to think globally. But how about what is happening in my household, my neighborhood, my town or state? How do those things affect me? Perhaps more importantly, how do they affect the people—geographically and emotionally—close to me? Then we ask ourselves, “Do I like what I see? If not, why not?” It’s important that we don’t settle for the obvious here. The blame game doesn’t benefit anyone.
Finally, we challenge ourselves with the question, “What can I do to change [X, Y, Z]?
Again, give it some thought. Be specific. Generalities like “things” quickly become overwhelming. And you can’t change the world at once. No one can. But there are many things an individual can do.
- Is there an elderly neighbor next door? Offer to mow their lawn.
- Perhaps you occasionally see a single person in the apartment down the hall. Order in and have a picnic in the hall or on the landing.
- Take the time to smile at the cashier at the grocery store and thank them.
- Wave to oncoming cars on the street with a smile.
- Unplug and do a family project together.
These ideas are just the tip of possibilities. There are many more that require little to no money. But it takes realizing that we aren’t alone. We need people and they need us. I believe the most valuable actions are those that simply acknowledge others as people—living, thinking, feeling human beings. Just like us. Just like we want to be seen. That’s Grace. And that’s how we can begin to build community.