The Evolution of Community
What community was in the past, what we mean by community today and what community is becoming are three entirely different things.
Community, you see, is evolving.
Community of the Past
The community of the past consisted of small villages and towns where everyone knew one another. It was the groups of immigrants who banded together with others from their homeland to maintain and celebrate their culture as they made their way in this new land. It consisted of multi-generational homes; families who shared child-rearing, household, and farm tasks. “Community” meant something different then.
In those communities, people looked out for one another, gathered to replace a home lost to fire together, supported one another in commerce. It seemed perfect and it was – as perfect as it could be. Yet, it was more of a pseudocommunity than a community: It was the earliest form of community.
In the old community, there were people around to see and hear and support you, but did we connect authentically? Did we support one another? Commonly heard admonitions were, “Keep your chin up” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, “It’s not the end of the world”, and “Children are to be seen and not heard”. There was no appreciation of the fully sensitive awareness of a child, or of the tender heart of an adult who needed, then as now, to be seen and heard. Emotions, something to be kept to yourself, were so far removed from human life that they were not even factored into illness. It was a time of rugged individualism when the mind, heart, and body occupied their own domains, when people suffered in silence because that’s just what you did.
Even though there were plenty of people around, the community of past the did not fulfill our need for emotional connection. However, even that caliber of connection is preferable to the loneliness that so many people face today. Ironically we were alone even while we were together, there, in the old community.
The Interim Phase; Community Today
Today we are not only lacking emotional connection, but we are also missing the physical proximity of people who know us well. Often, our work causes us to live far from the support of our families. We live in larger homes with more distance separating us from our neighbours. We spend our time on the back deck instead of the front porch where we could greet our neighbours as they pass by. We live in apart-ments – we live apart. Families rarely gather around one television anymore: Everyone has their own screens. Even in our homes, we lack the spirit of community.
Yet, Community has evolved beyond the physical stage where we banded together for survival, moving into the realm of the cerebral. Still mired in our nostalgic concept of Community, we tend to use the word as a magic pronouncement, dubbing so many things “Community” out of a desire to empower the group by enhancing its status. Today’s communities are thought out, planned, engineered.
We team build our employees into communities. We rally our cities and towns into communities. We even label our customer bases “communities”. But is this not a stretch? Customers do not band together or share camaraderie. They do not know or support one another. The only thing they have in common is the love of a product.
This cerebral community leaves us feeling empty and even used. The orchestration of the unity of a group of people doesn’t work because it doesn’t feel authentic especially when the decision to build community is not one that we make for ourselves.
What we call community today can feel artificial, contrived, forced and inauthentic. The word community has become synonymous with organization. Our hearts are in the right place but we’ve somehow backtracked instead of advanced, becoming less connected to what community really is. But that’s okay. Community is still evolving.
Community of the Heart
We who know the Communities of the past, if only via old television shows, recognize that there is more to Community than that of the domain of the physical or the cerebral. True community, as it is emerging now, is a Community of connection, of communication at the deepest level, the level where we find common ground. The new Community is a community of the heart. It’s evolved from the physical to the cerebral to the emotional.
This calibre of Community is something we yearn for even if we don’t fully understand it. We are drawn to movies and shows that demonstrate the power and beauty of human connection. Think of the movie We Are Marshall, for instance, or Little Miss Sunshine to name just two. The first is a movie about a town pulling together after a tragedy and the second is a story about the dynamics of an extended, multi-generation family learning to pull together in unusual circumstances. Why do we feel so good when we curl up to watch shows like Friends, Big Bang Theory, and Blue Bloods? These shows tug on our heartstrings because they demonstrate the beauty of the Community of the heart.
Is it Time?
Is there anything worse than feeling that nobody really understands you or knows how you feel? We never feel this way in a Community of the heart. In the new Community, even when we’re alone we don’t feel alone because we are emotionally connected to the people in the group. Authenticity rules; connection stamps out loneliness. There is always someone who has our back. Imagine a world in which everyone had at least one Community in their lives!
Community is precious to us because of the feeling of belonging, support, camaraderie and authentic connection it brings. Humans are wired for Community, it’s our natural state. The time is coming when these words will be more than a collection of letters on paper or on a screen; we are all in this together.
Perhaps the time is already here.
Photo: Lori Gosselin