Ted Gup, in his book, A Secret Gift, describes how during the Great Depression his grandfather impacted the lives of desperately needy people in his community by sending them anonymous cash gifts for Christmas. During that time of grinding poverty and desperation those gifts helped many lives in what might be described as a ripple effect of hope and faith. The “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” because when you touch one person’s life, that person in turn touches others, so that indirectly, many lives are touched. One thing that really appeals to me about A Secret Gift is that it paints a picture of what community used to mean, and what I think it should still be.
But for many people today, the idea of community is far different from that of the depression era. As the so-called social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, grow in popularity, more young persons think of community as those they can “hang out” with in cyberspace. We hear about community in terms of ethnic identity, such as the “Latino Community”, or in terms of socio-economic standing, as in the “Blue Collar Community”. Any demographic characteristic that pigeonholes individuals into group identities is used: the Student Community, the Singles Community, the Gay community, the Vietnamese Community, the Seniors Community, the Veterans Community, the Catholic Community or the Islamic Community.
I’ve heard all those descriptives used by newscasters and commentators, but none of them are real communities at all. They divide the American people into “communities” based on race, religion, gender, age, wealth and a variety of social and political characteristics. In fact, by breaking up people into these groups they are making a total mess of the concept of diversity. If a “community”, by definition, is described so narrowly in scope, then we cannot say our communities are diverse. If our communities are not diverse, we cannot say our nation is diverse. We are just a hodgepodge of narrowly defined groups.
In my post, Those Two Things, I wrote, “I grieve for the loss of true community. In reality, there is no such thing as a global community. It’s just part of the ‘new think’. A community should be identifiable by where people live and work, a diverse yet cohesive network of neighbors who directly and mutually meet each other’s needs. That sense of community identity has been largely lost in today’s culture where you don’t even know your neighbors.” Sadly, while we are losing the sense of community on the local level, news reports using the term, “International Community” are ubiquitous.
Now days community is more complex than it used to be. Many of us commute, so that we live in one community and work in another. What does that mean, that we don’t belong to either community? I think it is better to consider yourself part of both. Similarly, there are different schools and different churches which we may or may not attend, but aren’t they all part of one’s community? The stores I shop at, the restaurants I eat at, the other local merchants I patronize when I need a product or service — they are all owned and operated by different people with different back grounds, different virtues and different shortcomings. I may not want to hang out with them and I may not even like them, but I want them all to succeed because they are a part of my community and they help make that community what it is.
Being a community means we all need each other. That’s life. We all need to earn a living. And doing that means you are meeting someone else’s needs. The American community should be where everyone has the freedom to live as they choose as long as they recognize their neighbors have that same right. That’s liberty. The true spirit of community isn’t preferential, elitist or merely focused on one group. We all want to be able to go where we want to go and do what we want to do. That’s the pursuit of happiness. So community, in its highest and purest sense, should mean the place and the people which enables each one of us on a daily basis to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, a community isn’t simply self-sustaining, but nourishes everyone in it.
The convenience of doing business on line may allow for a feeling of autonomy and a disconnect from those who physically surround you, but if your electricity goes out, your neighbors are still there. It’s easy to be self-sufficient when everything is going along well. But when disaster strikes, when the going gets rough, communities need to pull together. Given the possibility of the economy collapsing, dwindling food supply and even the possibility that the government could fail, our main concern may soon be just survival. If we hope to survive, it had better be that we survive as a community. Individual survival is great, but without the shared values of American culture to preserve freedom, the individuals who do survive will have to go back to square one to fight for and build a new culture of freedom from scratch.