A longing for community

The other day, my partner and I went out for frozen custard with some friends (another couple, along with their baby – can you be friends with babies?) in Chicago. At one point, there was a discussion of the San Francisco Bay area, and how its a great place to live. My one friend, who is a software engineer, and who has strong personal connections to the area, talked about how odd it was that working for tech companies in the Bay area basically required living within 30 miles of Palo Alto. And he had a very good point – the internet is supposed make it possible to work for anyone from anywhere. Surely the companies responsible for creating the technology that allows telecommuting to be common and efficient would also be its foremost users. Yet this seems not to be the case. Just like with traditional companies, physical presence seems to be a necessary part of the work.

The spectacular rise of the tech giants and the outsize pay of many of their employees has, of course, driven the recent Bay area real estate market boom, which has had some pretty unsavory consequences. But I want to put the issues of affordable housing and gentrification aside right now. One of the really weird things about living in the era of the internet is the isolation one experiences on a routine basis. Now, I rather do enjoy being alone, so for me its maybe not so bad. I’ve probably spent more time with computers in my adult life than with people, and I don’t feel all that bad about it. However, I did at one point live in a small studio apartment, by myself, and the experience taught me that too much isolation is bad for me, even dangerous. I need regular interaction with other people. And it doesn’t need to be especially structured, either. When I lived in a coach house with three other people, I found that I really appreciated them each for the little quirks that made them unique. They didn’t necessarily always share my interests, but that didn’t matter. Over time we enjoyed each others’ company for it’s sheer familiarity. It was fun just to sit and talk about whatever, to crack jokes and share meals.

In my last couple of years at Roosevelt University, I became part of a Christian youth group (despite not being particularly young by then). They would do a really cool Sunday night activity called “Taking it to the Streets” where they would make brown bag lunches and distribute them to homeless folks around downtown Chicago. Later they made a big effort to distribute new, clean socks as well, especially during winter time. I didn’t participate on Sunday nights much, since I was living out in Logan Square, and traveling downtown didn’t always fit well in my schedule on Sundays, but whenever I did, it was always a life affirming experience. It definitely helped me learn that a big part of Christianity is about helping people to remember their own humanity by treating them like people. Capitalism can be extremely dehumanizing, and there are a lot of people who really need someone just to look them in the eyes when they speak to them. To listen to them for a little while. You find a way to create small acts of kindness so that those moments can happen. Another thing that I learned for those experiences was that the level of need present in our cities far outstrips the current level of aid committed to those needs. Homelessness in America is a massive problem – to confront is to feel an overwhelming mix of terror and humility. People who dismiss it as a mere aggregation of individual failures, poor choices and unaddressed mental illness are willfully blind. (Vox recently published an excellent piece, written by a homeless person, on the intractable problem of income scarcity.)

Anyways, what I most often did do with this youth group was hang out on Wednesday nights (later Friday nights) to share meals and talk. I think that was something I was really looking for – simple fellowship. A lot of the time it felt like taking turns listening to each other. It was a pretty diverse group, but we all shared basic concerns about social justice and human dignity. This taught me a lot about what being a Christian is all about – we’re all out in the world, doing our best to love our neighbors, and that’s hard, so we form little support groups and help each other, sharing our experiences and thoughts. Listening I think is a huge part of that. Both listening to others and letting them listen to you. Allowing yourself to think “Okay, talk about what’s important, what you yourself care about, because this person is listening right now.” That experience, just by itself, can be transformative. And I was lucky to find some people to share that experience with me.

Since I moved out to a small town, I haven’t had a regular group of people to meet with in this way, and I miss it. I don’t feel isolated – living with my partner – my spouse? – makes that pretty impossible, and our household feels happy and loving to me. But I miss having a regular group of people to sit around and talk to about different stuff. And we go to church, and that’s been pretty good, although the deep social conservatism of the parishioners can be a little off-putting for me. And there are some good moments here and there – like trips up to Chicago to hang out with friends and eat frozen custard. But that sense of community seems to only really come with those regular meetings with other people.

And one of the weird things about community is that it doesn’t necessarily fit into capitalism. I mean, you have to work at being a community, but if you try to do community the way you do work, it won’t work. You have to do it freely, for its own sake. And you might enjoy it, the way you might enjoy consuming frozen custard, but again, if you’re just doing it for the enjoyment, you aren’t really doing it. Being part of a community is not about fulfilling your potential, or getting the most out of life – which is why I think community is so sorely lacking these days. People are much more reliable consumers if they’re sitting by themselves in front of the television, watching commercials that promise to fill the holes in their life for a price, and then laboring at something they don’t believe in so they can afford to pay for the product that will fill the holes in their life. Community is free, and if it isn’t, it isn’t really community. And it can – it does – change you. The spirit of love comes out of togetherness, freely chosen and entered into.

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