This piece was published in the Melbourne Age in December 2001
Ask anyone what is missing in 21st century life this Christmas and the chances are pretty high that the word ‘community’ will be listed somewhere. Sure, they’ll list the detail like time with the kids and wooden toys, but I’ll bet that somewhere in the top 10 will be that romantic notion of a ‘sense of community’.
Whereas the word ‘community’ once meant a township, or place, ‘community’ is now some ‘feeling’ we long for, and if we can only find this ‘feeling’ the empty hole in our psyche will be filled.
So where if anywhere has our sense of community gone? Many believe it went west with the advent of globalisation or the introduction of internet communities. Others lean towards the work v’s community theory; that the more we work, the less time we have for building a nourishing sense of community.
I don’t subscribe to any of those theories. Many young people talk glowingly of their strong communities formed online. Long, hard work has been around for eons. For many traditional cultures, hard work is so enmeshed with family and indeed survival that our current privilege of separating work and home life doesn’t’ exist.
A more likely answer to our waning sense of community stems from our current fixation with it. I’m convinced that as we become more and more obsessed with finding our lost sense of community, we actually lessen our chances of ever finding it.
Several years ago I joined a commune in order to establish a sense of place. The same motive drove the other participants, and for a while all went well in our consciously created, manufactured community.
But ultimately, our ‘boy band’ of middle class social existence began to crumble. We learnt that trying to consciously create a basic building block of human existence without at least some degree of natural cohesion was disastrous. Our attempt at mapping and manipulating the community genome failed. While we could plan our careers, our holidays and our finances, we simply couldn’t plan and create the thing we desired most.
Yet in our totally planned and timetabled lives, it’s hard to believe that there are just some things that can’t be obtained through conscious endeavor. We tend to believe there must be a formula for everything. If we learn about money we’ll be rich. If we work hard at marriage we’ll live happily ever after. If we learn the secrets of happy children our kids will lead trouble free lives. Bollocks!
Some things in life tend to happen with very little conscious effort. Falling in love is one of them, and like finding love, community will probably be found where and when we least expect it.
So how do we suddenly stop the search and gather the faith to rely on a happy accident to fill our community vacuum?
Perhaps the best message is to simply forget about it all together. Wipe the phrase ‘sense of community’ from the vocabulary completely. If we go to church, go to worship God as the only reason. If we buy real estate, buy it because we like the house, not because the agent flogs the ‘community’ angle. Shop, sing more, walk the dog and dig the garden. Eat heartily with friends and family this Christmas. Have a drink or two…just don’t even think about community.
It may be then that this Christmas, we’ll find our lost ‘sense of community’ in the nooks and crannies of our existing ordinary lives; in a space we’ve been all along; in a space we were too busy searching for to find.