Thursday, May 10, 2012

TTMMR: blind longing for community

[Part One of an ongoing series, Things That Make Me Ranty. I watched myself going into Rant Mode about something and realized I have a whole list of things I'll get ranty for, and they might be worth writing about.]

Summary: Community is not an inherent, unalloyed good. It can inflict incredible damage on individuals.

The modern world in general, and America in particular, have a serious problem with community. I don't know who my neighbors are, and I haven't, really, in any of the places I've lived in California. I have a huge network of friends, who I can count on in times of need, but we keep in constant contact through email and real-time chat in between seeing each other every few weeks. Typically no one is randomly visiting, or asking to borrow a cup of sugar or anything.

Our families are also scattered. My brothers and I see our parents a few times each year, but we see each other rarely: maybe every 1-3 years, depending on what we've got going on. I tried to explain this to Chileans, who live with their parents until they get married, then they move into a house within 15 minutes (preferably 5) of their parents. Just because you're speaking the same language doesn't mean you're communicating: I might as well have said "I enjoy stubbing my toe, and my favorite hobby is drinking castor oil." It was so far outside their experience that most of them couldn't wrap their heads around it.

So there are books, and studies, and this is all to the good. We do need to understand what's changed, and how to enable and allow more connection and relationship in our life. We need to know that Facebook is not the same as friendship. With no offense to the handful of you that married your World of Warcraft guildmates, World of Warcraft is really not a good way to build actual human relationships that will support and sustain you.

I will now tell you something you may not have thought of, especially if you're like me and you grew up in modern urban America.

Community can have a very, very dark side. Not all tight-knit communities are open and loving. Like any relationship, we create community at a certain cost to the individual: we change our behavior to fit communal norms, we perform tasks we'd rather not, we spend time with some people we don't enjoy so much.

Sometimes, close communities kill people, engage in public shaming or shunning, or force people to renounce their families and friends. I'm not being dramatic. These are real things that did and do happen. Let's have a concrete example.

One of my Chilean teacher colleagues grew up evangelical Christian. She has since relaxed quite a bit while maintaining a strong faith, but her entire family and community are still rigid and fundamentalist. Her husband completely broke her heart, his womanizing particularly hurtful even for a Chilean man, so they're separated--remember no one gets divorced in Chile. They share the two kids half-time, which is normal enough...but the community barely tolerates their separation. Every Sunday she has to go sit next to her husband in church as though everything's fine. If they got divorced, she would lose her family and all the people she's known through the church, and depended on, in her life. She would probably lose her kids.

She needs her community enough to spend Sunday mornings sitting next to the one person in the world who has hurt her most, pretending like nothing's wrong. Constant emotional slaps in the face, because that's the price the community exacts for membership.

This happens so often to gay kids that there's a foundation to help them.

Human community expresses much of the best of what we can be. We help and care and love and protect each other. We're social creatures, and we should work on building community. We just have to be aware of what community can cost individuals, and make conscious choices about how much we're willing to squash the members who don't fit the allowed forms.

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