Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Communities and Loneliness

Communities: more than one.  Most of us move in and out communities.  The advent of modern transportation (beginning with the railway in the mid ninetieth century) first made it possible, then made it necessary, for people (in large numbers) to leave traditional communities and form new and increasingly temporary communities.  The advent of the internet has made community something even more transient. 

We belong to many different communities--communities related to work, to family, to recreation, to where we live, to what we believe or what motivates us in terms of religion, politics, causes or concerns.  You would think that with all of these communities, people would feel connected.  But they don't.  The proliferation of communities has been accompanied by an almost complete evaporation of any binding quality.  That is, communities of shared interest, shared life, or shared stuff exist only so long as it is convenient for the individual members of the communities.  Not only is one's membership in just about any community (including the nuclear family) completely voluntary, even the level of one's participation, one's transparency, or one's responsibility in that community is almost completely dependent on the whim of each individual member.
The world was not always that way.  As little as 150 years ago in Europe (and much more recently in other parts of the world), a person was born in the house he or she died in, never traveled more than 50 miles in his or her lifetime, never changed his or her job, and was a member of a religious tradition and a particular worshiping place that he or she never chose.  Most of the people who lived in a particular geographical community were also members of the extended family community, who were also members of the same worship community and whose business relationships were generally interconnected.  There were very few secrets.  Everyone knew just about everything about everyone, and no one had a choice about his or her responsibilities or level of participation.  Community was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of birth.  You were born into it.
And so today with our mobility and instant communication and our memberships in dozens of (often) very shallow and short-lived communities, today we are lonely.  Today we wonder why no one knows us, no one cares, no one seems to share anything really.  We wonder why our chosen communities today do not produce the same level of intimacy and caring that we imagine traditional communities provide.
And yet I wonder how much better or worse off we really are today with our many voluntary communities.  Actually, in terms of loneliness, I don't think it is much different.  Certainly life in a traditional village was no nirvana (all you have to do is read a little between the lines of any older piece of fiction to confirm that).  Finding genuine human connection, real sharing, real community within an unchanging set of neighbours may not have been any easier 150 or a thousand years ago than it is today.  Certainly human beings were no less selfish and no less shallow in the past than they are today.  

Certainly specific circumstances differ, yet the longings of the human heart do not.  Perhaps today we are lonely because we do not have the relationships we want to have, the relationships we imagine we should have, the community that we imagine will supply what seems to be missing.  I'd like to suggest that perhaps our very freedom has fooled us.  The fact that we are free to choose communities has fooled us into thinking that if we could only choose the right community, we would feel connected.  We would feel like were really are in a community--whatever we imagine that is supposed to feel like.

What if nothing has really changed much?  What if loneliness and lack of connectedness has very little to do with which or what communities I am connected to, and a whole lot to do with who I am in myself?  I think it might.  I think that inner transformation changes everything outside me.    I think that if I can find love in me, God's love for me and God's love for my neighbour--whether I've chosen him or her as my neighbour or not, regardless of how shallow or selfish that neighbour is--if I can find that love, then I can find community.

Some of you know that I correspond every week with a man in solitary confinement in a super maximum security prison in the U.S.  Monk Anthony, as he is now known, has found God's love in his heart.  His letters breathe the love he has for his guards and fellow inmates.  In the more than ten years I have been writing Monk Anthony, never once has he mentioned loneliness.  Love of God producing love of neighbour has made him feel at home in his unchosen community.


Anonymous said...

A curse/luxury of transients is never having to truely face who we are becoming, because the constant "fresh starts" mean you could become anybody. The choosing on a "whim" means we decide how we want to project ourselves to others in any given context. Furthermore, as you describe, we can also pick the contexts (communities) themselves.
Often, when meeting someone new, we ask, "Where are you from?" Transients says, "I'm not really from anywhere." Freedom means we can author our own narratives. Authenticity is a rare commodity, and the weight of self-definition afforded by so much freedom is constricting. It's constricted by fear of choosing the wrong me.
If who we are informs what we do, then it follows that what one does offers clues as to who one is. If what I do needs to change, then does who I am need to change as well? Can you change who you are? (forgive the changing of sentence subjects)
Finding Love within such a superficial interior space is a somewhat daughnting task. How do you recognize it amidst lots of knock-offs? How do you cultivate it when it is found?
(yes, I realize the irony of posting this anonymously)

Fr. Michael said...

Wow, what a deep stream of thought. I agree that one of the biggest burdens placed on people today is self-definition. By creating a world in which hypothetically "anyone can be president," we have put on (particularly young) people a burden very difficult to bear. As limiting as socially defined roles are, they at least provide a context in which one can focus on who they are: not their story, not their image, not what they imagine others will be impressed with them being today.
Joe the plumber, son of Joe the plumber, may hate plumbing, but since he has very little choice in the matter, he is forced to focus on what who he will be as a plumber (he could always run off and join the army or the circus or a monastery, maybe--but those represent a pretty narrow set of options). Everyone will know him. What he does will reveal who he is; and only long years of being different will make up for early mistakes.
On the other hand, Jesus the carpenter was not limited in becoming himself although he had no choice in his early profession.
I think Joe the plumber has a much better chance of seeing God in Jesus Christ than Joe the who-shall-I-be-today.