The word community is one of those buzzwords we hear floated about these days. What does it mean to be in a community? Is there a mutually supportive and amplifying positive effect among everyone, or are people just showing up to have a shared experience? When I go to the movies, I have a group experience. Having a shared group experience is great — we thrive on those — but just because I attended a yoga class, I am not necessarily part of that community.
In a big city, one tends to become tribal about the specificity of one’s location to the amusement of those who don’t live there. NYC below 14th street, or Los Angeles west of the 405, Paris by arrondissement. The minutia of these distinctions only seem to be of importance to those living in those zones. Somehow sharing a city with millions of others drives the need to differentiate ourselves into self-designated tribal zones. But, again, this is not a community.
Maybe what coalesces a group into a community is a shared need. The dam is breaking, and we need volunteers to fill sandbags. My house is burning down; can you help me put out the fire? This may be true, but it isn’t everything. I now live in a relatively small town, maybe 10,000 people depending on who is doing the counting. Last week, I unwittingly went to an actual community event. It was the local ski swap, and I was just looking for a deal, not so much to have any sort of community interaction. Yes, I got some deals, but what I also got was an eye-opening community experience. The event was to raise money to help people who may want to partake in winter sports, which can otherwise be spendy. The people working the event, the people who waited for an hour in sub-freezing weather, everyone could not have been more enthusiastic, friendly and helpful.
I left with a profound sense that I had just experienced something meaningful. It has stayed with me, this idea that I now belong here, that people here really do care about each other and for the group as a whole. Maybe it is the scale of the town — yes, I know, it’s not a typical small town, maybe it is the singular focus on outdoor activities, but I felt something that night: civic engagement and actual community. A lot of voluntary non-emergency effort went into this, and it showed. Creating a community requires effortful participation from all parties. Community service, right? That is one of the things that makes it sticky. We humans can be pretty impressive. Mostly we want to do the right thing, engage, and be helpful. It is about being invested, caring and, as 100-year-old Deborah Szekely said last week, doing the right thing.
Onward and upward,