“Year 12 farewell assembly. The tradition is they walk up the middle stairs while staff form a kind of honour guard. One student was hanging back and I wasn’t sure why. Then his friend arrived who has a knee injury and can’t handle stairs. He was waiting for her, and he piggy backed her all the way up. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my school!”
On average my facebook posts probably gather 5 likes each. Even the cute pictures of sugar gliders get maybe 10 or so likes. But this post, by the end of a single day, had 44 likes. This story resonates. People go “awww! That’s beautiful!” There is something about people looking out for each other, going a little further to help each other out, and quietly being there for each other, that speaks directly to our hearts.
Do you know why? I think it’s because we know it’s missing from our lives most of the time. In general we live incredibly isolated lives. It’s not that we don’t have friends – most of us do. But we don’t see them every day. We don’t necessarily notice if we don’t speak to them for a few weeks running. Huge upheavals can happen in their lives without us ever knowing, even though we love them very much.
I don’t believe we do any less, care any less, or love any less. We have friends, we have work, we have busy, busy lives. But what we really don’t have, most of us, is community. Many of my closest friends live 10, 20, or even thousands of kilometers away. We are pretty good at keeping in touch. We call. We email. We facebook. But we don’t live next door. We don’t always notice the pauses in the conversation that might mean something has gone badly wrong, because we are all so busy that pauses happen all the time. Packed into those pauses might be the death of a parent, an episode of depression, even an ambulance trip to the emergency room, and we might never even know.
If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you
Find out what we’re made of
When we are called to help our friends in need
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do, oh yeah
Count on me – Bruno Mars.
We don’t know our neighbours beyond a cordial chat when we happen to be getting into our cars at the same time. We certainly don’t drop by to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. We don’t walk to school and get to know all the families on the way. We don’t shop at the local shops and know the shopkeepers’ children. We live in huge cities and commute from one side to the other for work. We shop at massive shopping centers surrounded by strangers.
George Monbiot argues that this is killing us. In our busy striving for individualism and wealth, we are losing contact with the very things that bring us the deepest satisfaction and contentment. I’m really lucky, I find many of these things at my school, with both staff and students. There is a sense of community there, beautifully exemplified by the piggy back, that fills a vast hole in my life. I can’t imagine leaving, and it breaks my heart a little each time we say goodbye to the next crop of year 12s.
But not everyone can work or study at my school. Not everyone will find their community in their workplace. And whoever we are, however introverted, however independent, we need community. We need that sense of people looking out for us, and that meaning and fulfillment that comes from looking out for others.
I think what we’ve failed to recognise is that friends are not the same as community. Community is, of necessity, a local thing. If you start to feel depressed and can’t bring yourself to call anyone, people who see you every day might notice and have the chance to help. But if your friends are all remote, they’re not likely to notice until the time between phone calls becomes obvious, which could be weeks, or even months. If you break your leg, have a sick child, or a sick parent, and you don’t call for help, community has the chance to notice because of the change in your routine.
The problem is that our cities are built in ways that actively discourage community. Our houses are getting bigger and our fences higher. Our local shopping strips are dying, to be replaced by huge, impersonal shopping centers miles away that we have to drive to. Our public transport, which at least allows us to walk through our neighbourhood on the way to and from our very remote jobs, is slow, erratic, and expensive. Everything about our town planning encourages us out of our neighbourhoods, into our cars, and away from any potential community we might otherwise build.
And the trouble is I think it takes a community to fix it.