Saturday, January 27, 2007

What Is Community Anyway?

I said some time back that there is something sacred about community. North American society, both in the USA and in Canada, has been on a long trajectory towards individualism, even at the expense of community. My generation (1960s baby boomers) used to talk about dropping out to find ourselves. as though our identity was floating around the world waiting for us to catch up with it and internalize it. Supreme individualism! As I observed a few posts back, Canada has as its central constitutional document The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, based on the value and rights of the individual almost without regard to the larger community.

That is of course an overstatement: the notwithstanding clause, for example, is a tribute to the desire to strengthen community at the provincial level; continuing conversations about "unique societies", whether in Quebec or in Nunavut, reflect the same desire to preserve community. But the stronger force in our society is the push towards individualism, and that force is destructive of human community unless it flowers within a commitment to the larger whole.

The common saying from southern Africa is: "A person becomes fully human in and through community." At some level we all know the truth here: that we need each other. We know also that people search for community insistently, even as it slips away from us. Whether in church youth groups discovering the value of true community, or in voluntary associations (clubs of different kinds), or in immigrant communities that seek to maintain something of their ethnic identity after moving to Canada -- repeatedly we hold on to each other. As we must.

But figuring out what really makes community is even harder than finding it. Because our communities, even our identity as Canadians, are essentially voluntary, people routinely leave community behind: then we wonder how we lost what we gave up. I'm struggling to figure out what this thing really is. I remember reading Bonhoeffer on community: profound (whatever he said), and hard to penetrate.

I wonder if some sort of real final commitment is necessary: to God (citizens of Heaven), to country ("Breathes there a man with soul so dead ...."), to something or someone big enough to encompass our whole life. I don't know: I think it is, but I don't know. I'm pretty sure that if there's anything less at the centre of our lives, the individual will beat the centre by default.

1 comment:

KGMom said...

And you thought the book identity for you was wrong?!
I quote: "You're out to expose imperialism, militarism, and nationalism for what they really are."
Anyway--I agree with the need for community. Your observations about the trajectory toward individualism are interesting.
Community planners are beginning to realize this as they bring back things like livable communities--where houses have front porches, and people see each other and say "hello."