One of my neighbors died two weeks ago today, but I didn’t know about it until a few hours after he was buried — four days later.
I’d lived across the street from William for many years. He’s cut my grass several times. I’ve given him rides to the store. I’ve chatted with his wife, Anna, and him when I’ve bumped into them at the grocery store. Every now and then, he would come over as I was getting home, just because he wanted someone to talk with.
So why did it take me so long to find out that William had died? And what does this imply about modern communities?
Every indication I see or read says that communities haven’t been as strong for the past couple of generations as they once were. Those same decades have been filled with incredible advancements in our living standards and options about life. Could it be that the choices we’ve been making are filled with tradeoffs that we’re not entirely sure we’re making? I suspect so.
At one time, the people in communities and neighborhoods had to know one another, because they were all they mutually had. They didn’t have cars to drive to places across a city or state. They spent most of their time within a short distance of home.
They stayed outside more, because it wasn’t that long ago when normal people didn’t have air conditioning. (And it wasn’t too many years before that when air conditioning didn’t exist. I don’t know how people lived in the South at the time.) Children played outside. Adults worked outside and they sat around on porches and talked when they weren’t working.
There were no televisions to take their attention. There were no computers or video game systems. Facebook certainly didn’t exist. Neither did all the other electronic devices around which we build our lives today.
People were forced to interact more closely with those right around them — for good or for bad.
A few people still live that way today. For instance, the Amish still reject modern conveniences. I used to believe that they believed such modern devices were evil, but I’ve come to understand that it’s simply a conscious decision that modern conveniences take a person’s eyes off the values and lifestyle that they believe makes people more virtuous and happier. Could they be right?
I don’t want to live as the Amish do, but they still have a sense of community that’s almost unheard-of elsewhere. Take a look at the time-lapse video below of one of their famous barn-raisings, this one in Ohio. They still know each other and work together. They certainly have crime and they’re not perfect, but there are attractive things about the results they get.
And what about us?
Most of us don’t know many of our neighbors. The ones we know tend to be shallower ties other than rare exceptions. We spend most of our waking hours many miles from our neighborhoods. When we return to our neighborhoods, we go into sealed homes of our own. Most people flip on televisions and computers and gaming devices and enter worlds far from the people around us.
Those rare children who still play outside unsupervised — which was common even a few decades ago in most places — are now treated as though they’re doing something unsafe. Parents are sometimes even threatened. The lesson? Go back inside. Watch television. Play video games. Send pictures of yourself on Snapchat. Stay inside your nice, safe walled-off prison.
I’d already been thinking a lot for the past few months about community, even before William died. I’ve found myself yearning for something different from what we experience today, even though I don’t want to go as far back as what the Amish have instituted. Is there a middle ground?
Whoever said we can have it all was lying to us. We can’t have all of the things we consider part of modern life and still have the communities that some of us crave. All of these things are tradeoffs, and different ones of us are going to make different choices about those tradeoffs. But shouldn’t we be aware of what we’re giving up in exchange for the changes we’ve so eagerly accepted into our lives?
At this point, I suspect that most people would make the choice to stay with the neighborhoods that I consider to be cold and antiseptic. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s their choice. But aren’t there some of us who want something more? Aren’t there some of us who are interested in making some conscious, intentional choices to recover some ways of being communities — and ways of living family life — that most people have left behind?
I’ve always believed that churches were groups of people who met together because they shared identical (or very similar) beliefs, but I recently encountered the idea that this hasn’t always been the case. In a thought-provoking radio documentary on Canada’s CBC show, Ideas, a scholar of religious history and literature argues that religions traditionally had more to do with community than what the people specifically believed. I don’t agree with everything in the documentary, but it gave me some new things to think about. I recommend it.
(Viewed in this way, Pascal’s Wager makes sense. If your choice is about participation in a community — rather than what to believe — his argument makes sense. Viewed through a modern lens of belief, it was nonsensical that you could choose what to believe.)
What if we established intentional communities — groups which wanted to build a sense of community around shared ways of life and practice? Would we end up with more well-adjusted children? Would we have adults who were more emotionally healthy and less unhappy and depressed? Would we have closer families — parents and children who knew each other and loved each other more than their TVs and computers and Xboxes?
I can’t say for sure, but I suspect so.
The only thing I can say for sure is that I’m struggling to understand what a community really is. I think most of us have lost sight of it today. I love a lot of what modern technology and modern choices have given us — and I have no intention of giving up my MacBook and my iPhone — but I have a strong feeling that I’ve lost a lot of the human connection that I so desperately find myself needing and wanting.
I think we need to examine our choices. I think we need to make some hard choices. I gave up television years ago. Would it be better if I gave up Facebook? Would it be better if I found people who shared my ideas about possibly building different sorts of neighborhoods — and intentionally chose to build something new with them?
I don’t know. But as I consider the fact that a man who lived across the street from me for years can be dead and his body in the ground four days later before I know about it, I think something is wrong.
I want community. I want human contact. I also want the conveniences of modern life. But I’d like to be more serious and intentional about weighing the choices — and not just accepting every change that technology and popular culture give to me.
Progress can be great, but we can lose sight of what’s important. I want to re-evaluate what’s important to me. I have some long-term changes I need to make.