Are you part of your community? It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past few years, and the answer isn’t as simple as I thought it would be. Without thinking about it, we’d all assume we’re part of one community or another almost by default. We refer to being involved in our “local community” or our “church community”, and we often describe groups or populations the same way: the Latino community, the working-class community, the chess lovers community. But are those really communities?
Defining a Community
I had to do a paper for a grad class last year that asked the same thing. I thought it was a pretty simple question, until we sat there in class and picked apart everything I thought I knew about communities (because what else are grad classes for?).
The problem is that we invented the word “community” in the first place to describe some kind of voluntary, relational, uplifting, interdependent way of living among other people. But most of those examples of the word use it basically as a synonym for “group” or “population”. It seems like it would make sense to describe someone as part of their “local community”, but what if they don’t feel like they’re part of it? What if they don’t want to be part of it?
Can you really just be “lumped in” to a community? And if so, does that mean your membership is automatically meaningful? I think instinctively we’d all say “no” to both, even though it’s hard to really describe why. We know that a community is supposed to be meaningful and relationally uplifting and mutually involved between members, and it makes more sense to define a community based on whether or not it achieves those realities. The absence of a commonality of life and purpose probably means that no community exists.
So back to the original question: are you part of a community? And here’s the tough part about the definition I was just talking about: if you’re not sure you’re part of a community, you probably aren’t. It’s not the kind of thing that buzzes in the background without your involvement, like when you’re not sure if the heat is on or not. Communities take involvement, and adventure, and sacrifice, and humility. If you don’t find yourself intertwining your life in any real way with people around you, you can’t really say you’re in community with them.
At the same time, if you find that you do have people in your life like that, you might be a community without even knowing it. Right now I have a group of friends that kind of evolved from knowing each other from college. We hardly ever see each other, hardly any of us live anywhere near each other, we don’t even work at the same kinds of jobs. But we are intensely involved in each other’s lives. We call and email each other as a group, asking for advice and prayer about decisions and difficulties and transitions in our lives. We know a lot of each other’s doubts and inner thoughts, and try to work for one another in the ways we can. The few times a year we all get to see each other are incredibly uplifting and healing. It’s a limited community, but a strong one.
Maybe you spend a lot of time with the people on your block, eating together or tending a shared garden. Maybe you have a group at your church that would do anything for you (and you for them). Or you’re part of an activism or awareness group that is helping each other work toward a goal or improve your town. These are your communities.
On the other hand, maybe you are part of a community pool or a country club, and you have no idea who the other members really are. Or you go to a church and no one talks or spends any time with each other outside of a pew. You joined a CSA but don’t know the names of the farmers, let alone anything about the lives of the other people involved. Don’t mistake a club or a cool project for a sincere and thriving community.
You need to get involved. Many of us, especially in a difficult economy, are intensely conscious of the ways we don’t want to live. We see people throwing away their lives or happiness for the sake of shallow things that pretend to be life and happiness, and we want to do a better job caring about what really matters. But a lot of us then take a more fulfilling (read: lower-paying) job, or spend more time camping, or go to more concerts, or work hard to provide better for our families, and still feel just as much like we’re missing out. Because a big part of what we’re really all missing out on is people.
We need friendships, and friendships are more than just people we have over to dinner every once in awhile or chat with at work about our weekend. We need people who have the same excitement as us about things we think are important, and who spend real time together living life and pursuing those things. It’s great to have some friends who get drinks after work, but we need friends who can listen over a beer to the hardest stuff we’re going through right now. We need friends who know they can call each other in the middle of the night if they need to, and whose kids know each other’s houses as well as their own. We need the kind of friends who can come unannounced and hang out for hours even though we didn’t have time to pick up the house or wash the dishes yet. That’s what I think community is about.
I care a lot about this, which is why I’m trying to do the same thing in my own life. It’s also why I wanted to make a food blog that’s about more than just food. Cooking is just one of a million ways to tear down fences and get involved with our neighbors, and I’m a lot more interested in how many extra chairs you’re squeezing in at your table than what or how well you cook for the people sitting there.
So get yourself a community. Throw yourself into it. It’s hard work, but take it from me – you need it, and you’ll be glad you did it.