Years ago, when I was ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, I was more or less housebound for an alarmingly long time. After months of this I began to realise that being alone for large chunks of the day was incredibly bad for my mental health. I needed the constant bouncing around of ideas, emotions and experiences that comes from interacting with others. Without it, I became paranoid and lost perspective. Every day began to be filled with Everests in a tea cup. Insurmountable traumas grew out of anything anyone ever said or did. In short, I was all but ready to take a leap of the cliffs of insanity. Inconceivable.
Realising this, I sent out a call for help, by emailing my friends and begging for visitors. My dearly loved colleagues from Monash rallied around in an act of love that still brings tears to my eyes. Every Wednesday, without fail, these friends would bring lemon chicken to my house. It has to be said, from any rational perspective the chicken itself was terrible, but it had become something of a tradition, simply because it was less terrible than anything else the university cafeteria had to offer. And if I couldn’t come to the chicken, the chicken would come to me.
Once a week, the group would invade my home, take over my kitchen, provide me with lunch, and provide themselves with cups of tea. As close friends should be, they were perfectly at home in my kitchen, and there was never any need for me to lift a finger.
More than anything, though, they were there. Every week. Physically present, laughing, joking, hugging me, sharing their lives and bringing a vital dose of perspective, with lemon sauce.
That’s community. That’s how we stay sane and grounded in a crazy, chaotic world. The people we connect with are our anchors. Even in calm seas, without an anchor it’s so easy to drift way of course without even being aware of it. It’s those friends who are close enough to grab you as you drift past, to whack you in the face with the frying pan of “you have GOT to be kidding”, who strengthen our grip on reality, and extend our coping capacity so that we can make it through the trauma.
The problem is that these days community can be hard to find. With increasingly mobile work forces, people tend not to stay in the one job indefinitely. Neighbours are all but invisible to each other, rushing off to work, driving to whole other suburbs for recreation, and shopping in large, anonymous shopping centres. We don’t walk around our streets, shop locally, or often even play in the local park so much anymore. We drive somewhere bigger, better, or more air conditioned.
Even if your kids go to school locally, the pick up and drop off are usually so hectic, that unless you have a very special school community, you may hardly meet anyone there either. Especially if your kids are in before and after school care, which is increasingly common. Fewer people go to church, and when they do it’s often not a local church, so community is just that little bit diluted again.
We have lots of friends we see occasionally, and we love them, and love to catch up with them. But we are not sharing our lives with them by catching up once or twice a year. That may be friendship, but it’s not community.
We just don’t have the opportunities for community that we used to have. There are still some, but they are harder to find, and more and more people are finding themselves without community, sometimes without even realising it. And if you do realise it, it’s not always easy to find yourself a ready made community, or to create one. To create our hectic, transient and mobile lives, we have traded away something vital and precious, and the sad part is that we don’t even realise it’s gone.