If you follow the hashtag #CommunityMatters on Twitter you will see many posts from charity organizations. There are pictures of successful fundraisers, and references to the non-profit CommunityMatters.org, an anti-bullying organization that promotes safety at schools. You will even find a publishing company that works with city chambers of commerce to publish marketing materials, and foundations supporting education. The terms community organization and community engagement also invoke thoughts of movements and programs. Traditionally, however, the understanding of community has been something very different.
In southern Africa, there is a term used among the peoples—Ubuntu—which, in some languages can be loosely translated as “I am because we are.” This idea comes from the deep philosophical belief that we are not meant to live singular lives, but that only through community are we able to bring meaning to human existence.
This is easy to understand in the context of tribal cultures, or small communities where people depend upon one another for immediate physical needs such as food and protection from the elements. For those of us in Western culture, however, particularly those who live in very urban areas, the concept of community can easily get lost in abstraction.
For me, the most difficult part of moving to a new city as an adult was the relentless loneliness. Although our days were filled with the adventure of a new place, discovering the culture and food and people of our new home, loneliness was my constant companion. I would spend an hour in the grocery store and not run into anyone I knew. I would go to the neighborhood park with our son and see no familiar faces. I would cry through Sunday morning worship service because I was in a room full of complete strangers.
Social isolation is a problem unique to prosperous societies. Whether you’ve lived here your entire life, or are one of the over half a million people who has moved to Houston over the last five years, finding community can be difficult in a city this size and this economically vibrant. With Amazon prime, solitary working spaces, and wireless remote everything, we just do not need close personal relationships for survival any longer.
Or do we?
Studies show that humans are so hard-wired for empathy that those people with whom we are closest, such as our spouses and close friends, literally become part of our own self-identity. As one University of Virginia professor, James Coen, puts it:
People close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real.
In other words, our very make-up cries out for attachment, not just as an add-on, but as an elemental part of our own self-existence.
Eventually, I met a few people here. The cashier at the dry cleaners began remembering my name, and my son got invited to a few birthday parties. Some of the people I met even started to become friends–but I was still lonely. What I discovered is that although we were creating new relationships, these people only knew my today, they did not know my yesterday. That felt like a real loss, and not one that could be quickly replaced.
So we signed up for things. We volunteered for things. We showed up and participated and made ourselves friendly. Some of those things were not very fun, and some of them were not our particular flavor, and sometimes people did not reciprocate the friendliness. But some of them did, and some of the things were terrific, and a few times we’ve found ourselves in the middle of a brand new experience that never would have been possible without the risk. And somewhere along the way, we began to feel the familiar comfort of an upholding community built on knowing and being known, past and present.
So, if you find yourself answering the question “Are you still watching?” a little too often these days, here a few of my tried and true tips for finding the community we all desire:
- Volunteer at your children’s school, if you are a parent. This is the best way I can think of to get to know not only other parents, but the teachers and students, as well. The added bonus is that you are now “in the know” about what’s really going on at school.
- Join a community of like-minded people that meets regularly and feeds you spiritually. For some this is a church, temple, or mosque. For others it may be a spiritual center or even a book club or an artists studio. Your people are out there, so go and find them.
- Get to know your neighbors. Go outside and talk to the people who live around you. Take a walk and spend time at your local park. Throw a block party and invite everyone within a five-block radius of your house. You will likely be amazed at how many people show up, and how many of them are searching for community just like you are.
- Be the pursuer. This takes guts and may be the most difficult of all. Don’t wait for friendship to come knocking at your door. Be the friendly knocker, and keep on knocking, and knocking, and knocking.
Just before we moved to Houston, I looked at my closest friends and said “Who will I be without you?” Four years later, I am still answering that question, but the bonds we’ve been able to establish here through our school, our neighbors, our faith community, and our work are all beautiful and uplifting and growing deeper every day.
Having people around you who know where you are, where you are going, AND where you’ve been simply takes time. But knowing that our desire for community is actually an essential human need helps me to continue the effort, and the wonderful people we continue to meet in Houston prove that those efforts are worth it.