Saturday, August 12, 2017

On Community, Again

I just read local author Paul Born’s Deepening Community. In places, it’s very close to what I’ve written about in terms of ensuring that we’re kind to one another at the very end. He doesn’t skirt around the issue that we’re in dire straights and that we can choose how to behave when push comes to shove. (But I think he should have called the book, The Born Community.)

I've written about community before, and I'm going to say much of the same thing here but in many, many more words!  There are pictures and video clips to break it up. (I included headings for clarity and page numbers throughout - where I remembered.)   I aim to critique Born's book while trying to get to the bottom of what can be done to foster a cohesive sense of belonging and caring spanning the globe.  I'm using Born's book as as starting point, but I don't have all the solutions.  I'm ever in the process of seeking.


There are things I really like about the book, but in other places it falls short of the mark.  Born is a community developer by profession (110); I've met him before, and, in person and in his writing, he's remarkably earnest.  I believe creating community at this time is of utmost importance, but I'm not sure he's gone far enough to teach us what that actually means.

His publisher markets books that are, "Helping people create positive individual change and align their lives with their aspirations for a better world."  Maybe I'm jaded because our educational changes have been fostered by this type of writing -  ideas that sound amazing, but run you into roadblocks when you actually try to implement them - but I sometimes find it exhausting to try to figure out exactly how to use the books in a real-world application.  The genre has a following that can be intensely defensive. Many books of this type are written without rigour because they can be, because people will gobble up the hope without the substance not recognizing the empty calories. When people write about how to improve life, critics are more likely to avoid them than actually critique them.  It just doesn't seem nice.  It feels good to read "We have a choice. We can make a difference" (29), so good that people don't look closer to figure out how that all plays out.  I wrote more about why people accept loose argumentation near the end of this post under the heading: "The Curious Case of Mass Appeal."  But honest, specific and practical criticism is necessary for growth.

Decades ago, in a ritual studies liturgy course, my prof spoke to us about funerals that don't work because they don't bury the right person.  Well-meaning pastors want to present the best version of the deceased to loved-ones, but, according to our prof (also a pastor), that does a disservice to everyone.  It becomes an empty ritual, an inauthentic service.  We have to be honest when doing ritual work if we want them to "take."  That means discussing not only all the wonderful things people do, but digging up some of the dirt too and being able to accept that it was part of them - being able to put them to rest as a whole person.  I agree with my prof on this account, and that's a problem with the book.

Born loves community so much he idealizes the process and outcome. There's little dirt to make it all real. I want to struggle through the difficulties with him in a process, but there's no struggle here.  In a nutshell: if you share personal stories with your neighbours, you'll have an amazing community of supports to help you manage through difficult times which will provoke you to help people worldwide. I don't think it's so easy. I want to look at some of the barriers to this kind of effort that need to be overcome before we can authentically move forward - not to be a naysayer or pessimist, but to deepen the discussion in search of tangible solutions.

Born uses anecdotal evidence to illustrate his points, a collection of stories from people within his community already, but I wonder if there's something else that this group of people - already part of a substantial collective - are doing that isn't being discussed, something less visible.  Some of the writing is a bit cliché and homiletic for me with some mere assertions lacking strong supports. Yet Born has a substantial following with incredible results: his work so far played a part in reducing poverty for a quarter of a million people (9).  He has an ability to organize and lead and speak in a way people will listen and act, which tells me something about my own failed attempts at community. Aiming for the intellect with rigorous research might not be the best way to win converts. Lots of clearly delineated arguments with support from the scientific community does jack shit to make people listen. Apparently potlucks is where it's at. Yet, I can't help but feel something's substantial is missing, and it's important to address the holes to better solidify the foundations of this type of work. He skims over the tangle of mess that is human dynamics to paint an artificially rosy picture of how we can all just get along.


Born addresses the need for community in the Preface.  We need community in order to invest in relationships for our personal benefit, for security, for joy with "friends who make the hours pass quickly" (xvii), to improve our physical, mental, and economic health, to improve economic opportunities through networking, and to make us happier in general.

The purpose of the book is to empower people to open up to community, make conscious choices about community (weeding the bad from good), and feel connected to people we care about.   One point he makes that I heartily agree with is that community needs to be fostered - it doesn't always happen automatically.  There's an underlying premise to his purpose:  we don't have better communities because we're fearful.  We need to be empowered to allow community to happen.  I'm not sure that's entirely the case, but I'll get to that later.


A concern with aloneness seeps through a few passages in the book. "The challenge is to understand, and get past, our own sense of isolation" (9). He analyses this dread as being from our difficult times, "facing the threat of cosmic disaster" (12), but I think even people in secure environments can feel it.  It's deeper than external threats; that angst resides in our awareness of our condition - that we are alone in ourselves, that connection can only take us so far, and that we have to go the rest of the way by ourselves.  No amount of deep community can erase that sense.  It's our own to fight or accept.

There's a glimmer of fear and insecurity when he suggests,
"...deepening community, is to reach out and build the relationships that will help realize our longing for belonging and true safety; not just relationships but networks of relationships that we invest in, surrounding ourselves with people we care about and who care for us. This investment pays great dividends: it helps us combat loneliness and fear, and it helps us see a clear difference between true community a false community" (17). 
I'm not sure what "true safety" means, but it seems to be staved off with company. But it's an illusion that community can alleviate deep loneliness or keep us safe from death. I had a similar reaction to a Margaret Wente column when she insisted people are meant to be paired up through marriage. Loneliness isn't necessarily alleviated by company.

Furthermore, community could be yet another distraction from the reality of our aloneness. Maybe it feels like the loneliness melts away because we've temporarily forgotten about it rather than because it's actually been alleviated. Feeling that we belong inextricably to a clan or to the world or to a spirit can be comforting, but that "sense our destiny is in our own hands," as Sartre says, is still there.

Louis CK gets at that "forever empty" feeling with an exploration of one of the problems with today's technology:

Loneliness and fear are different struggles that can't be helped with multitudes of people joining your cause. Even that feeling like you truly fit in can be fleeting. Sometimes we fit together well, and sometimes our individuality screams out a little too loud for enmeshment.


Born asks if "an excessive focus on self is dismantling our need or sense of responsibility for one another" (8), but he doesn't flush out that pivotal query into a substantial point. It's curious that he doesn't touch on some writers who have tackled this issue previously, like Charles Taylor, instead giving space to writers like Dickens for a superficial inclusion of that "best of times" bit.

Charles Taylor does a thorough job of exploring how and why we shifted from group consciousness to an individual naval-gazing focus in Sources of the Self and Malaise of Modernity. He recognizes “a loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons . . . a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (MM:4), and "'the culture of narcissism,' the spread of an outlook that makes self-fulfillment the major value in life and that seems to recognize few external moral demands or serious commitment to other" (MM:55). We're no longer transcending ourselves for deeper meaning in life, but Taylor is optimistic that this attitude can be worked with if we can retrieve our original path that got us here over that last few centuries - a quest for the Good. The achievement of modern life is our ability to choose; we don't have to join the masses or be part of a community. We can march to our own drummer. But that doesn't have to mean marching for our own benefit or refusing community. If we can live more authentic lives, it can come back to benefit the whole. He's on the same page as Born when he speaks of the "dialogical context" giving meaning to life. We need others to give us "horizons of significance." We need to recognize the context of community that we came from as well as the necessity of community to help us evolve out of our individualistic malaise.

Freud also spent an entire book weighing the needs of the individual against the needs of the community. Can we really be like ants in a colony working for the benefit of all, or are we too close to the territorial tigers or bears? Freud suggests it's necessary to damper some of our independence in order to make society work, hence our perpetual discontent.

From time to time Born suggests technological leaps have made a negative impact on community building, but elsewhere he recognizes the communal benefits of technology. More practically, I think the shift, in part, is economically based not technologically: As we got larger homes, we moved out of the marketplace as a location of discourse where people spent their leisure time to parlours and family rooms - and then individual bedrooms. I've suggested in an earlier post (somewhere) that we may have come full circle with the internet being our new marketplace. While I struggle to find a community of people in real life who don't roll their eyes at my concerns about our world, it's easy to find like-minded people in many groups on-line. There are myriad communities on-line no less valuable than those in real life. We do seek out other people in our lives - I think that's stating the obvious, and Born belabours the point a bit. But then how can we do it more successfully?


Born's not of the school that thinks we need to agree on a common definition of community to start with: "Community is one of those words that have [sic] many meanings, primarily because the experience of community is so diverse and rich" (56). This lack of conceptual analysis kept me struggling to get a firm handle on the content, even when he does define it for us, vaguely:
"I am appealing for a broader definition of community as belonging, a definition that allows us to embrace community as it is, when it is. Rather than wasting time and energy protesting the fragmentation of our lives today, and rather than using fragmentation as an excuse to withdraw and look after number one we can chose to make a virtue of this multiplicity of community experiences" (58). 


In the broadest terms, I think of community as large and friendship as intimate. In Born's discussion of deep community, he seems to want to bridge the two - to encourage us to have community of close friends, but I think the two are different in kind unless we're limiting the number involve in the community (maybe to Dunbar's number), but I don't think that's the idea. There's a point in which the closeness, awareness, and intimate knowledge of others can't be continued to more people. Our dance cards fill up. According to Dunbar, it's not necessarily laziness that prevents us from knowing many people well, but the limits of our brain power.  

I think of community as a web of interconnected social units that spread out, whereas friendship works back and forth. A friend or two that will help when you're sick is different than a community. The benefit of a friendship is in the closeness. Close friends have an enduring bond because they've gotten beyond the unsavoury bits of the other. That takes time - more than a few stories in an afternoon. It's an acknowledgment and acceptance of the true self. But just a handful of friends could wander away or die or change their minds about you. And if you have too many friends, then another issue surfaces  if everyone's your friend then maybe nobody really is. Friendship feels watered down if it's spread thinly. Montaigne suggests that with friendship, "there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls." (More on friendship here). For him, it's a rare, chance encounter that connects people by sheer luck of their meeting. The benefit of the community is in the numbers. It's a larger safety net. There's strength in numbers: the more people in your community, the more allies you have. But there can be a drawback with the numbers as well.  

I'm reminded of giving birth to my third child. My mother-in-law was involved with a church and members of the congregation came by with food, which was very sweet. But I don't have a freezer, and there was too much food for me to possibly eat or store. Stuck in my bedroom for a few days with hemorrhaging issues, I was a bit oblivious to the quiet entry and delivery going on downstairs. I also couldn't make arrangements to give it away to neighbours or even to put it away. So by the time I had the green light to manage the stairs, in those hot days at the end of June, my kitchen was full of rotten food cluttering every available inch of countertop. It was heartbreaking to see so much effort go to waste. But maybe that would have played out differently had it been my community - people I actually knew, a group to which I felt a sense of belonging or just people who knew I had no help to deal with the influx.  

Yet I think of community as differing from friendship because you don't need to know each individual well in order to feel compelled to help them. I think community allows for a sense of belonging without every person knowing everyone involved. I created an e-mail list for moms in my neighbourhood that's taken off over the past decade to include about 150 people and several blocks of homes even though the list is still named after my street. When anyone is sick or has a baby or is otherwise in need, someone in the know puts up a meal tree for people to sign up, and the mom in need usually gets a couple of weeks worth of dinners and some company at her door each night. With the group getting larger and more spread-out, often we don't know the name in the subject line, and it doesn't matter. Maybe the church community that brought me food just needed to be more organized. Maybe the problem wasn't that they didn't know me well, but that they didn't know how to arrange for delivery for a near stranger. Or, perhaps, they just didn't have any sense that someone could possibly be so void of help in their own home during those early days.  

I feel like a part of a larger community when people rally to help someone in the city who's had an accident or house fire, or people in another country who've suffered a flood or tornado. It's a reminder that we're all in this together when we pitch in to help strangers. But that's not the deep community Born is hoping we'll achieve.

Here are the three types of community recognized by Born:


Born describes shallow community as selfish, lazy, bewildered individualism. They are unions in which we don't have emotional bonds with people, but use others, or just make superficially empty gestures like sending a birthday card, or the impersonal Christmas cards some bosses or dentists send out year after year.

I think dropping off food at a stranger's home fits in here, which makes me feel defensive about some of the terms he uses to describe it. It's a loving gesture, kindhearted and useful. The idea that it's shallow because we don't get to know each other well through it - or before it - taints the gesture. I think his hope is that we all get to know each other more fully, but I fear we'll do less rather than more. Suggesting there's something shallow about sharing food this way is discouraging rather than being motivating.

There are many people I pass on the street daily that I nod to and acknowledge. I never stop to ask their names, and I'm okay with that. It's not out of fear or laziness, but maybe a sense that I don't need to know everyone I meet. It's important to know some people, but there are diminishing returns to extensive community engagement. There's a place for shallow engagement, for a casual hello or smile that expects nothing in return. And those little nods give me a sense of belonging - as if we're all friends here.

He says it's shallow to just click on a petition or post, but somehow writing a cheque to a charity is different (41). Somehow that counts as deep community even though the recipients aren't personally known. I need clarification on the difference between supporting charities by clicking their Paypal button and taking the extra effort to write and mail a cheque. I don't believe there's always a direct correlation between effort and level of care or concern. Sometimes there's a problematic illusion that there is a correlation to the point that cheque-mailers put themselves in a higher category than button clickers - but that's just silly.

Deep community necessitates sharing personal stories with anybody you want to help. It's suggested that otherwise we're being lazy or selfish, but I counter that it can be a very selfless act to donate money to a family you don't know even if it just takes a click of the mouse to do it. I'm concerned that the shunning - even just naming and defining - of shallow community could do more harm than good if it dissuades people from helping strangers. If we have an obligation to share stories with anyone we want to help, we might be less inclined to help at all. It's a nice thought that we can spend an afternoon with others, but until we've walked a mile, we don't know if doing the bare minimum is an act of survival or laziness.

All laziness is a matter of being differently-prioritized. I might leave dishes piling up in the sink for days while I put in a new garden, but my aching back attests to the fact that I wasn't idle. I was prioritizing such that the dishes were on the bottom of the list. Born puts community at the top, suggesting that any other arrangement of priorities is problematic because if we want to better the world, we have to start working together.  I'll speak to this further later (under WORLD).


Born says that fear-based community is awash with anxious hatred. It describes unions that join with others against a common enemy believing we have to work together to make the other lose. It's an us vs them mentality. He suggests we create community without closing ourselves off to others. This part reminded me loosely of Martin Buber's ideas on the I and Thou relationship.
"You speak of love as if it were the only relationship between men; but are you even justified in choosing it as an example, see that there is also hatred?  --As long as love is "blind" - that is, as long as it does not see a whole being - it does not truly stand under the basic word of relation.  Hatred remains blind by its very nature; one can hate only part of a being.  Whoever sees a whole being and must reject it, is no longer in the dominion of hatred but in the human limitation of the capacity to say You....Yet whoever hates directly is closer to a relation than those who are without love and hate" (Buber:68).  
We have to work to see whole people, and see them as relational to ourselves. Hatred is just seeing a part of the other. This requires us to circumvent the instinct often discussed as Social Identity Theory. We have a strong drive to identify ourselves with a group, which is nice and all, but we have an equally strong drive to identify ourselves in opposition to a group. Henri Tajfel did a famous series of experiments in the 70s in which he divided people into two groups randomly - sometimes just by a coin toss, then asked them individually and privately to indicate how they'd allocate resources to each person. The participants allocated more to people labeled as their own group than the other group. We favour our in-group at the expense of the out-group even if the in-group was formed through a meaningless, 30-second process.

As soon as we identify ourselves as part of group A, then we've automatically identified ourselves as not part of group B. I support the NDPs, so I don't support the Conservatives. If I liked a bit of both, I'd be a fence-sitter, unable to act (okay, the analogy works better in a two-party system). It can be  really tricky to align with one community without alienating another even just in the back of our head. This dilemma is a book in itself, but I'll move on. Buber advocates a bit of oneness of the universe thing. I have a hard time getting there. And I think it unlikely enough of us will get there to save the planet from our own greed.

Born defines a fear-based group as people who "position themselves against the other to feel safe or hopeful." But then gives as an example, "opposing the actions of another religion, calling it immoral...which can cause children to hate other children at school. We fear another person's choice because we believe in the choices we have made" (21).  

Hold the phone.

If a religious group suggests that we should bulldoze a wall over anyone found to be gay, then I will openly oppose these ideas. Yup, it's because I believe that the choices I make are more moral than theirs. Belief system aren't all created equal. My morality hinges on not harming others. Sometimes that leads me to speak strongly against people causing harm. It's not from a fear for myself but a fear of the harm caused to others. There are very good reasons to angrily oppose the words and actions of specific groups even if that opposition might develop animosity between our children. I want racists and homophobes to lose in that I want them to come to realize how wrong they've been. And I have a community that supports me in these efforts.

It seems to me that blindly accepting everyone's beliefs and ethics in the name of community is just another means of inauthentic or shallow community. It's either a gesture of an action, a show of caring, or else it runs counter to the tenet of making the world a better place. If your belief system says homosexuals will all burn in hell and must be forced into re-education camps, then I harm everyone gay by accepting that belief as equal to my own. It's too simplistic to suggest we accept everyone's chosen morality. We can accept others as people, equally valuable to ourselves, without accepting their belief system as equally moral.

He continues, "When injustice is perceived as systemic or against 'my people,' as we have seen in Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Somalia, it can turn citizens into terrorists, people who feel that revenge or acts of war will make them safer" (22). I can best speak to the situation in Palestine, but that revenge is not so much an act to make them safe - as they will die themselves and know their people will often face retaliation of an even larger measure - but an act of sheer, unmitigated despair. When your house has been bulldozed and your city has been walled off so getting food is a nightmare, and when it's been going on for decades supported by some of the most powerful countries in the world, and when there's no fleeing the largest open-air prison in the world, then advocating getting security through deep community is a crock. There have been marches that have joined Jewish and Muslim groups; deep community within and between fractioned groups has been there from the beginning. But I don't think we can so lightly dismiss the reactions of the desperate, shooting tanks with slingshots or blowing themselves up in the streets, nor make assumptions about their motives that are possibly more complex than we could ever know.

I understand not acting from revenge, but some acts seen as terrorism by Israeli forces (and American allies), aren't done from a sense of vengeance, but from a desperate need for this level of atrocity to be acknowledged and stopped. There's a good Tolstoy story in which the moral is that the most important time is now, and the most important people are whomever you're with, and the most important thing to do is to bring joy to the people you're with - even if it's your enemy. In the story, the person learning the lesson ends up saved by unwittingly helping an enemy. It's similar to other Tolstoy stories. Don't bother with revenge, just don't add any more evil to the world. But sometimes you have to cause some harm to stop a greater harm from happening.  

But I do agree with the stance that we have to be very careful not to make an issue into an us vs them. That bit is bang on. But it can't be delivered as a general dictate because some circumstances make it impossible. If a group is trying to obliterate you and your friends and families, your people, then do what it takes to save your skins. Working together and bridging the divide isn't always the best answer. But, as we face burgeoning crises from climate change, this is a very important time to discuss how to walk through the potential catastrophe together without resorting to bloodshed. Absolutely.

The smallest thing can cause a connection:  having the same hometown can unite two radically different people, or a common middle name can be enough for people to see another as an "us" instead of a "them." But these tiny things can divide us as well. That's something that requires our vigilant awareness to stop the thoughts in our minds before they become actions. Sometimes the tighter the bonds within a group, the higher the gates around it. We need to stop the process of "othering" in its tracks as we meet people and discern what is and is not similar to ourselves - where they sit on the hierarchy of status compared to ourselves, how impressed we should be or the deference we can expect of another.

I think Julia Butterfly Hill beautifully elucidates the difference between what Born refers to as fear-based and deep community as she worked to stop logging yet never worked against the loggers themselves.

This is different than accepting their morals. She can accept them as people without accepting what they do.


Born describes this as community that goes beyond just activities, beyond the situational: "I might play basketball with a group of guys every Thursday evening but have to accept that this is as far as I'm going to get in those men's lives." It's not of depth if it can't go beyond the artificial boundaries of time and place. It could include coming together to reduce poverty or make neighbourhoods safe, or to restore ecosystems. We need to "do the work of community, to perform the 'supply chain' of efforts and acts that lead to the point at which we hand that bowl of chicken soup to an indisposed neighbour" (13).  We know it's deep community when we care enough to help others.

I assume he means that we help from a drive to care rather than as a duty, so gestures like setting up a committee at work to make sure people get a card and flowers if they're sick might be courting shallow community. And a workplace might seem like a strong community, but if nobody sees each other outside work hours, then it's not of depth.  It might be nice to work there, but it's not going far enough.

It feels like his definitions shift a bit throughout the book, but it seems that it's not deep community if it doesn't compel us towards acts greater than ourselves. But then he also gives as an example, bringing in mail for a neighbour when they're not home - which is a neighbourly thing I've done for others in most places I've lived, but sometimes without knowing them well or ever having them over for dinner, which now appears to be a shallow act. If I casually pick up money dropped by the guy in line in front of me, is that an act of deep community or shallow? In some places in the book, it feels like it depends on how well you know the other and care about them, but in other places it seems dependent on whether you see them in different contexts. If one of his basketball friends visited him in the hospital, would that team become a deep community or would it just be a friendship or just a solitary act of obligatory kindness? It's really not clear to me, and I wonder if it's left somewhat vague in an attempt to make it appear that it's an ineffable concept when I think it could be more grounded.

One of my concerns with the concept of deep community as intentional is that I agree with Montaigne's definition of friendship as something that happens to us. It's a matter of luck to actually meet someone we can connect with at any depth - that we can truly know. If it's the case that connexion between people is random, then it can't be made to happen with specific people just because they happen to live nearby.

However, it is possible to create communities intentionally if the idea isn't that we're expected to know each member authentically, but just know them enough to know when they're sick or otherwise in need. I'm not someone compelled to help others out of a sense of caring unless I have a deeper connexion with them, but I am compelled to help out of a sense of morality - because it's good to help. But it appears that it's also part of the definition of deep community that we're driven to help through our caring. So I'm not sure I can do this with a whole community of people (which implies to me a significantly large group of people).

But anyway...

Born attempts to clarify by elucidating his principles of community:


1. Seeking community is natural. "We can accomplish more together, we are safer together, and we can find greater comfort when we are together" (58).
2. We all have many communities in our lives, since they're so varied, but "Not all communities are equal, nor are all communities healthy. Community is therefore not an ideal state; it just is" (58).
3. We can choose to deepen our experience of community. "The journey from shallow to deep is driven by a desire for more. It defines the search for more community, better community. It counters fragmentation by demanding deeper relationships and experiences" (59).
4. Seeking community is part of our spiritual journey. "In the pursuit of a meaningful life, we engage with others....we seek people who are engaged by the things that engage us" (60).
5. Healthy community leads to individual and collective altruism. "We are willing to suspend personal need in order to contribute to collective need, knowing that our personal experience of community will be enhanced" (60).

The principle that community is natural and therefore good or important is an appeal to nature fallacy, and it's also questionable within the context. We need people, but we also naturally compete for resources, and when they're scarce, we'll compete to the death.  If we want to be how we are naturally, then it's not so pretty a tale.

The second principle is one of the few times Born acknowledges that communities can be unhealthy and problematic, but it doesn't necessarily follow that community just is. Developing community seems to be the goal of the book. The idea that it's not an ideal state needs clarification. I think it's the case that a healthy community is ideal. I think Born would agree, so this bit is confusing. It seems like he threw the baby out with the bath water on this one.

The third and fourth principles recognize that we want to connect with people, which I agree with - even if it's not necessarily spiritual. Born suggests that "there are many experiences of community" (13), but then he categorizes them into three types and discusses the need to journey from shallow to deep. He seems to recognizes the judgment implicit to the advice because he adds as a point about choosing to just observe the differences instead of judging them. For most of the book it seems clear that depth is better, but then there's one paragraph suggesting maybe shallow is okay too, which makes me think he's uncomfortable with the judgment he's imposed on people in his thesis (59). Yet he doesn't rectify it earlier or throughout; it's just an afterthought. Curious.

The fifth point is contentious. We often hear of great tragedies bringing people together in mutual concern. Born has a great discussion of the Ukrainian Mennonite's struggle. During this difficult time people joined together to help each other rather than turning away from one another. But it's not always the case. Sometimes in survival situations, we buckle down harder to save ourselves at the expense of others, or even take advantage of those in need. Those stories - people looting from flooded homes - don't always make front page news.  

I think we want to connect with others, and that living in a healthy community is ideal since there's much to be gained from it, but we have to override our instincts for immediate self-preservation over long-term communal survival. And that's a huge barrier to be overcome. This is the tragedy of the commons. Individuals act rationally for their own self-interest, but act contrary to a group's long-term interests by depleting common resources. We free-ride on the idea that everyone else will do what's right for the community, so we can get away with doing something to increase our own prosperity without it actually affecting the community. It's just one disposable coffee cup, or one steak and the cow's already dead, or just one person with one hummer.  

Plato said the same thing in his discussion on the art of measurement. He thought learning to measure near and far in time and space was the primary skill to be taught in schools - measuring the consequences of immediate rewards (like getting to work in style in a hummer) against the consequences of distance rewards (like having clean air to breath). But we didn't listen - and we won't.

It's a matter of scale and anonymity. If we're at a banquet with tempting desserts, in polite company, we'll take only what we need and wait for everyone to get one before we go back for seconds. If we could expand that notion to a global scale and act as if we're being watched (and we very well may be!), then we wouldn't dare take more than we need before everyone had their first serving. Poverty and resource depletion would be eradicated. But it's hard to see that far away or ahead on such a large scale - or even to remember to do so once our passion for a new whatever takes hold.  

We often see the strength of people rising up collectively during immediate tragedies, but the bigger issue of climate change isn't affecting us all yet. It's still far enough away - we naively think - to be safely ignored for today. So we're not quite passionate about making a better life happen. We're not rising up to stop it. Can we develop the impetus to work together on something so variable and ethereal? We're not in a position - yet - where community is necessary for survival. Can we be pro-active and build it anyway, or is that type of gathering only flourish in times of adversity?

Born shares this concern,
"As global climate change ravages the world as we know it, will we work together to help one another, or will we build walls to keep those most affected away. Will we wage war to obtain lands that are least affected? Will the desperate among us wage war against those we believe to be holding us down? (43)
I think war likely if not inevitable. If portions of residential land slips underwater, there just isn't room to house the displaced populations. Something's got to give. The bit of history imparted in Collapse that most impacted me, is the number of falling societies that resorted to cannibalism. Few dying societies seemed to go with kindness and compassion for all. The elites had the most large mammal bones in their garbage heaps, while the masses' garbage was full of rodent bones. They ate rats before they ate one another with evidence that they broke open their neighbour's bones to suck out the marrow, such was their desperation. Smaller communities that are surviving peacefully are fodder for invasion. There's nowhere to escape.

So it goes.

Born continues, "In these times it would be wise to stay together, take care of one another, and work together for a better world" (44). I agree. Absolutely it would. But what will make us less self-focused to change the world? It's not enough to have lots of company if everyone's got A/C and drives everywhere sipping water from a plastic bottle, eating chocolate picked by slaves in Africa, and wearing clothes made by children in China. The world just won't survive our sense of entitlement, our need to impress one another with a show of status.

And if we were able to rise up in numbers, to give up our own luxuries for the sake of conserving resources, if we suddenly started caring and protesting, would the elites listen and change the system, or would they find a way to silence us? Both have historical precedence. It's anyone's guess.  

But, it's not about solving the problems, it's about starting to solve them. That's the most we can ask of ourselves.   


Born establishing steps towards cultivating deep community. In each of the following I point out some of the barriers to be overcome to make this type of work possible for everyone. Reading this book was like someone with poor eye-hand co-ordination excited to finally find a book on how to win at darts, but then all the book talks about is how great it is when you throw the dart and hit the target. It doesn't discuss all the misses, why they happen, and how to prevent them. I'm horrible at creating community or working together to make the world a better place - and it's not from lack of trying. I understand the usefulness of sharing stories, but how do we get to a place where enough people will want to share with us to be able to work together? In my neighbourhood and at work, I have a collection of friends I talk with regularly, but it's not the same as what Born's getting at. I've attempted to form communities to improve the world, but I'm rarely successful. I'll see if I can get to the bottom of this below:


Born says we need "to laugh together, to cry, and to have disagreements and to make up. To want this type of relationship with our families and neighbours and friends present and future."(16) "Through this act we open ourselves to one another, show our vulnerability, and build mutual trust" (64). At conferences, he often asks people why it's important they're here today, or what brings them to this work, or their first memory of community in order to start a conversation. (68) "Sharing helps us to open up, to become vulnerable, to hear other people's stories. Thus do we begin to work together to distinguish truth from untruth and rational fear from irrational fear, to determine what we might do together" (133).

He shares examples including mom's groups connected by their children, people connecting through Facebook, and church groups helping one another.

BUT what if nobody wants to share stories with you? I know a woman with a son who was getting beat-up at school. She took the path of enrolling him in judo to give him confidence and some skills, but then, on the last day of judo class, the kids in that class beat him up. Some people aren't well liked - by anyone. Born suggests the key is just knocking on a neighbour's door and talking, but what if that door slams in your face? Rejection and the threat of harm are real concerns when beginning to share stories with people we don't really know - and even those we do. We can be brave and face it over and over, but is there an easier way? And how long before we need to recognize our limitations on this front?

It's not always fear or laziness that keep us from connecting. Sometimes an unusual personality that can't be easily taught social skills can make people wary of connecting, but other times a choice to be different - holding integrity and non-conformity to a higher value than community - can isolate people. In an ideal world we'd have both non-conformity and community - a happy island of misfits recognizing and appreciating one another's idiosyncrasies, but this world isn't ideal. It's often very cruel. So it can end up being a choice between conforming to the dominant style or personality, or losing the possibility of having people in life who might listen to your stories.

If we can connect, sharing to the point of vulnerability is a different hurdle. People strive to be better than others as a means of securing their own status, and sometimes, if they see weakness, they'll pounce on it.  Sometimes sharing our darkest stories can lead to humiliation as they make the rounds in the gossip circuits. Here's a weird story from my younger years to illustrate: My feet sweat - a lot. So when I wear sandals, I sometimes use anti-perspirant to keep from sloshing around. A good friend, caring and kind, whom I knew for years, caught me in the act of application, but said that of course he wouldn't say anything. That very night, at a party, it was the first thing he told people. He had something on me, and by using it, he could own me. It's an easy enough bind to get out of by just reclaiming it casually, but it's not always so easy to own our issues publicly. Sometimes sharing with depth can lead to a being further traumatized by the treatment at the hands of friends whose social status is of more value than your friendship. And we can't easily tell whom to trust. How do we decide which door to knock on, and which stories to share? It's only really possible without the expectation of success, and without that expectation we might lose our drive to connect.

Furthermore, sharing stories can bring people together, but it can also reveal profound, unbridgeable difference. Maybe neighbours will find out one works in an abortion clinic and the other vehemently believes abortion is an abomination. Sometimes in-depth sharing can lead to conflicts that weren't there previously, and disagreements can't always we so simply smoothed over. Sometimes, when you're around people by necessity - at work, in a neighbourhood, etc. - it can be wise to keep things light and on the surface for the sake of the health of the community.

Born asks, "What is to keep us from turning to the anonymous diners around us and asking them to join us?" (46).  Fear of rejection, which is relatively easy to remedy if we can avoid taking it personally, but also fear of creepiness. What if I join someone who then follows me home, sure that I'm in love with him/her, and refusing to believe that I was just being social? There are some real concerns with inviting people into our homes or even just striking up a conversation. I'm not sure Born gets the seriousness - or prevalence - of that reality.

Born's naive idealism is never more clear than with his story of telling his son about how much he is loved each night at bedtime. Community doesn't mean you'll be loved - more contact with people might mean a greater chance at connecting with someone, but it might also mean more chances to be bullied and harmed. Some people are jerks. Some churches, families, neighbourhoods, and schools are dominated by bigoted, self-righteous people ready to tell others what's wrong with them. Some of this can be escaped as people move place to place looking for a better place to connect - but that's a harder road than Born gives credence to. Some people have gotten used to this treatment from childhood and think it's normal to the point that avoiding groups of people is a safety skill.

We need to teach our kids how to love themselves in the face of adversity - in the face of loss and loneliness and hatred. And we need to remember that some kids don't have anyone to say any words of encouragement before they fall asleep at night. It's condescending to suggest we make sure we include the isolated in our groups. I'd rather find a way to give them the strength to begin their own groups or accept that some people are happier on their own.


Born refers to "spending time together with others over time...laughing together and knowing how to have fun together...yes, at times gossiped about, but never ignored and always included."(17) "This can mean playing games or music, or watching movies together...anything that brings us joy and that we do on a regular basis with the same people....When we enjoy one another, we create positive memories and associations" (64). These are encompassed in the "four strong winds of joy": The joy of being together, of collective accomplishment, of collective altruism, and of collective lightness of being (97).

By "lightness of being" he means in a "many hands makes light work" way, not in a Kundera way. At all. I agree heartily that working together towards a common goal is a great way to develop friendships, but Born goes a bit further:
"Deep joy cannot be found alone or through individual pursuits. It can be found only in community, as we deepen our relationships with others. This does not mean that going for a long walk by yourself or spending a week in silent meditation cannot cultivate happiness or be part of a joyful life. However, they do lack purpose and meaning in the absence of mutually caring and sustained relationships. We can cultivate joy only by giving and receiving kindness and compassion as we enter into community with others" (103). 
Proof? Is this a personal experience being generalized to all of us skewed by a false consensus effect? I don't think this could be tested as a hypothesis beyond comparing subjective feedback on feelings of joy both alone and with others. Because of the qualifier "only," we just need one experience to the contrary to dismantle the argument. But I have bigger questions: Why is purpose and meaning necessary for joy? A profound part of play is the purposelessness of it. If we're keeping score, then sometimes we can think we're playing, but we're actually working. I agree with the necessity of play in our lives, but it creates joy without being meaningful. And play can be a solitary activity that creates the same joy as with a group. And meditation can be full of purpose and meaning. Why is the joy experienced in a group seen as better than the joy experienced alone? Furthermore, why does kindness and compassion towards others rate higher than kindness and compassion towards ourselves? I don't disagree with the need for community, but it's certainly not the only way to experience joy. Walking through a forest or looking at the moon these nights can make me weak-kneed with joyfulness in a way that rarely happens with groups of close friends.

"When we enjoy one another in a community we have invested in, we become a collective witness to the events around us" (134).

It's not revelatory to suggest that it's fun to be with people. But it can be hard for many to manage it. Born argues that it's good, but doesn't offer any strategies for making it happen beyond being brave enough to take the initiative. Teaching at a high-school, I see kids rejected every day. I've seen some kids transfer to my school and have their whole world opened up, suddenly making friends easily. But there are others who come and have their world destroyed - suddenly unable to make friends. I contend that it's not the atmosphere of the school that makes the difference, but the luck-of-the-draw encounter with like-minded people. Some people just don't fit in their environment and haven't found ways to repress some less-normative traits for the current group either by accident or by choice - to be true to themselves.

Even adults slip up. I have a truck-driver, macabre sense of humour but am often surrounded by people less... childish? I was at a pool-party recently in which, long after dark, parents lamented, "How do we get the kids to stop swimming." I offered, "Throw a toaster in!" They moved on to less-morose suggestions with nary a chuckle. Wrong audience. We have little adjustments we make when we're with different groups. Some people refuse to make them, and others don't have the social skills to recognize why they don't mesh.

Our humour, clothes, homes, cars (or lack of), status, careers, musical taste, even team affiliations can unite us, but they can also be divisive. It's human nature to gravitate to people similar to us, but it also human to avoid or even shun those less similar. Again, this is basic Social Identity Theory. If we're lucky enough to be in proximity to people we can find similarities with, then this step in building community can be a breeze. But for those not so lucky, it can be painful or even deadly. It's naive at best, but also dismissive of real experiences, to suggest this is something people need to just buck up and DO already.

We also can't guarantee that playing together bring joy. That takes out the human factor in a pollyanna utopia. Playing can become competitive and mean-spirited. It takes deeper work on social dynamics to get along, and it's not always possible. As most people watching children can attest to, playing can bring much joy at first then devolve into nastiness. It's not just children that need on-going guidance to play well together.

People are naturally drawn to community, but we're also mean and petty and will conspire against one another and do most anything to bump ourselves up on that status ladder. It will take an entire cultural shift to suggest we stop competing with one another - and because competition is so fun for people, it's not something likely to go away anytime soon. So the problem remains, how can we find people to enjoy - or, if we're following Born's suggestion to use proximity as a guide, then how can we find a way to enjoy people who are nearby but different than us, who use subtle gestures of exclusion: from single-word responses to eye-rolling to the point-and-laugh salute that screams, "You don't belong here"?  It feels great to belong; Born emphasizes that fact repeatedly. But knowing you want to feel it, doesn't make it happen.

I think most people get stuck here, sometimes because they're fearful to make the first move, and sometimes because of their own social awkwardness, but often just from a bad fit with those in the vicinity. Born might give hope that it's possible, but doesn't offer the necessary tools of collaboration beyond holding a potluck dinner in your home.

Community has to be built on shared ideas, but too many are built on shared stuff. We connect over our things sometimes to the point that we need more and more stuff to develop connections, and unfortunately potlucks can succumb to that status anxiety. Even offering food can be a social minefield if too often it doesn't meet the expectations of lavishness or expense or earthiness.

The "joy of collective accomplishment," the idea of work being a catalyst for friendship isn't discussed enough here. I've belonged to a few groups that ran the way Born suggests - by starting with potlucks. The Transition movement starts with building community first with so many potlucks and so little action that I took my leave. Because working together - whether painting a mural or planting trees or building a deck for a neighbour - can be a much easier way to connect. The work takes the focus off making forced conversation and words can flow at their own speed and on their own merit. The online resource Streetbank can help people connect to work together - and then develop friendships and shared community through working towards a common goal.

Years ago I tried to do something similar in our neighbourhood with an i-neighbors account for our corner of the city when we formed a neighbourhood association. I suggested people join with their name and photo so we could recognize each other on the street, and then include what skills or tools they have to share with a discussion forum where people could ask for help. It didn't work. Tons of people joined, but few would include a photo because of fears of internet predators, and few included any tools they own for fear of thieves. It's password protected, so they're largely worried about the people in our own neighbourhood causing them harm. (I wrote more about that here.) It ended up being a forum to discuss traffic concerns, which was fine. It served a purpose. But I was quick to join Streetbank as soon as I heard of it.

A final barrier here is deciding who's included in the group. When people didn't like the i-neighbors account, I made a separate website for the neighbourhood association. I asked many people how they'd like it to be, and some wanted a facebook site, but others won't use facebook. Some wanted it password protected, but others don't like having to remember a password. Some wanted the focus to be on activities we do together, but others wanted it to be more about helping one another. Some thought a domain name important, and built a second website, but there's no content in it, and it went nowhere. As I privately e-mailed around asking what happened to the group, and if I should delete the sites I created, one person commented, "Too many people chasing an undefined end." For a group to be cohesive, it has to have something that binds it - a cause, or an interest. It's idealistic to think that the people joined together by living on the same street will also work together towards helping the world. It would be great if it happened like that, but it's unlikely unless people move to that area because of a common worldview of the area that provoked their move.

Something that did work well is that simple group e-mail account for all the moms on the street. And I think it worked because it was exclusive (or defined is another way of looking at it). We said yes to pretty much any mom within several blocks, and there's a token single dad on the list, but it's focused on parenting and taking care of one another and taking a night off together from time to time. If there's no clear focus or no work to be done or no games to play, it can be awkward to try to connect - and then people drift away. Except, allowed to get just a bit too big, just enough to hit a tipping point, the whole thing devolved into a buy and sell, and I deleted my name from it despite being the founder.


Born sees a natural trajectory from sharing to caring: "If they are sick, they can expect us to call....In return, we can know that when we get sick, we will be cared for..."(17). "... joining a neighbourhood watch...belonging to a co-op...remembering birthdays...bringing soup over...listening to one another..." (65).

He relates a story about making a meal for his neighbours to get everyone to know each other. I really appreciate how wonderful it is to know your neighbours since I live in a very cohesive neighbourhood. When I bought the house, all I cared about was having a big front porch close to the street and being able to walk uptown. Before signing, I visited the street at different times to see if people were generally out and about. With kids playing ball hockey on the road, I closed the deal. Since then, the neighbourhood has significantly turned over, but there's still a strong community here. I credit the porches and walkability of the area. The problem with many suburbs and apartments is the closed off nature of the designs. That and air conditioning that keeps everyone indoors. Sometimes just clever urban development can make the difference.

He continues that it's important to know our neighbours to "feel one another...[have] social capital, whereby knowing one another turns into a reciprocal relationship of caring" (113). We can do it if we, "take the initiative...take a people face-to-face...changing your front yard...get out and play...consider forming a neighbourhood or apartment association." He encourages us with, "Trust me, 80 percent of your neighbours want to know one another; all it takes is to organize an event well" (115).

I agree that society works best if people care for one another. But I'm concerned that people just don't want that enough to change. There are short term rewards for self-serving acts, and community building can hit a lot of roadblocks before the first rewards are felt. What will get us from here to there?    

Furthermore, sometimes it's a problem when help isn't helpful. Born suggests the indication of success is if we know one another well enough to know if someone's sick, and know if they'd like chicken soup, and bring it to them. But even our closest friends don't always know what we need. And sometimes poorly thought out help is worse than no help at all.

After I had my second baby, a friend dropped in and insisted on doing my dishes by hand even though I have a dishwasher. She left at noon, after coving the counter with wet dishes dripping on many tea towels, just in time for me to try to make lunch for my 2-year-old. She meant well. She wanted to help, but didn't know enough - or was too proud? or maybe a little arrogant? - to ask me how she could help. Similarly a friend of mine once had a miscarriage. Upon arriving home from the hospital she found a small tree on the porch with a note from a friend that she could plant as a memorial. She found the idea presumptuous, and had neither energy nor space to plant the tree, so it died on the porch.

There's a curious marker of closeness that's displayed in a show of not needing to ask what we need. But we're ever changing and need different types of help in different situations. How could anyone know for sure that we'd like soup right now. How can we know that our pot of food is helpful and not burdensome without asking first?

The idea of a group of people knowing when you're sick can be a comfort for some, but for more private types, it might feel invasive. At one point Born suggests that when animals are sick, they instinctively want to be home with kin. He offers no support for this claim, and I've seen the contrary. I know when one of my cats is sick, she'll hide in the closet. They seek out private space to be alone. I get that.

Helping others can be a problem even when they ask for our help. Years ago, as a new teacher, a colleague needed a place to stay for a few months. She was going through a tough time. A group of more established (and much higher-paid) teachers were sitting in the lunch room when we heard her news. None of the other people - many with expansive homes - offered their place. But I didn't think twice. That's entirely a function of growing up with parents who took in friends in need. I was raised with a duty to help, and I'm not sure that can be taught to the masses at this point in our evolution. But, after cleaning out my bedroom dresser, getting new sheets for the bed, and setting up all my stuff in stacked boxes in my kids' room, she declined the offer because, since she was going through such a hard time, she needed some place nice. Ouch.

Caring for others requires not just knowing what they need, but it requires people accepting our care. Sometimes they won't because they're too independent, don't want to feel they owe us, or don't feel our help is to their standards.  

Sometimes people don't want our help because we're not the right type of people. I'm always up to help build or paint anything, but I get few takers. I sometimes wonder if it's because I'd have better luck helping if I were a man. I built a deck and balcony on my house and on the house next door which I used to own. I remember a neighbour (who's since moved) coming over to ask about how to build a balcony. He kept asking my ex-partner how he did it, and I kept saying that he didn't have any part of it. My old boyfriend started explaining how it might be done, and I'd interject with what actually works, but the neighbour wouldn't even make eye contact with me during the conversation. I get e-mails to help out with a meal tree when someone's sick or had a baby, but my cooking is barely edible. I can order well, but that doesn't cut it against the made-from-scratch meals typical of this hood. But I'd be happy to deal with the rotten deck boards or put up that arbour or paint the baby's room. Those offers just get beget awkward silences.

I've been to potlucks where the dish someone brought was openly disparaged. I've offered to erect clotheslines for people wanting them, but was rejected, I think, because they're refurbished posts, not new. I offer my stroller to a friend in need, but she wanted a brand new one despite the lack of cash. We're in a culture, not just of independence, but of perfection. We won't accept anything less than the very best, so it become harder to help one another. And the glorification of independence over interdependence means people can be bullish about accepting needed help.

We need to know that sometimes people will reject our offers of camaraderie or help. And sometimes the best way to help is to accept help. My dad always told me to let other people help because you're helping them shine. Let them show off what they know and what they can do for you. The corollary of that is that it's not necessarily selfless to help others.


Finally, Born says, "when we know and trust one another, we can work together to build the community we are part of"(17).
 "The above three acts of community...give us energy for the fourth act of deepening community: building a better world together. In fact, we become a force for change that is unstoppable....We no longer feel alone in our fear or hopeless in our dreams; rather, we have the courage to see our dreams become real" (135).  
He give as examples, "...improving a neighbourhood...retrofitting our building to be more environmentally sustainable...carrying our recycling to a centralized up a park...feeding the hungry....visiting prisoners together.... (65). And more later: start a neighbourhood watch program, make a community workshop, donate money, join an organization... (128-131).

I feel like sharing stories isn't all he did to get to where he is. I kinda feel ripped off with a book that doesn't get to more of the nitty gritty bits. There has to be more to the story than making friends and then helping the multitudes. Without more in-depth details of his own journey, it feels like somewhere along the line he said "abracadabra" and then it worked, and I think starting out attached to some Mennonite groups is key for him. Helping reduce poverty and environmental destruction is something I've dreamed of since childhood too, but I've never been able to bring it to fruition. There are too many roadblocks I don't know how to climb, and this book is no ladder for the atheists among us.  

Born adds, 
"I have been extremely lucky both in my dreaming and in finding so many colleagues and friends (my deep community with whom to dream the same dreams together). Over a period of thirty years, the art of dreaming in detail has allowed us to start and/or build a dozen organizations, raise an estimated $100 million for charitable causes, and help more than a quarter million people live a better life...lead people nationwide in community initiative to reduce poverty and increase the riches of intentional neighbourliness" (136).
I think the key word there is "luck." I think we need to attempt as many connections as we can in order to get a lucky break with a few that really pan out, but, as Mlodinow suggests with many other situations, cultivating deep community is not solely a function of fearless effort.  

But even sometimes when we have a group together who care about changing the world, we can't get things to work. I was part of EcoSchools for a few years, and our school won gold standing in its first year, but the energy fizzled. It started out with just me and three students, and we did everything. But after a few years, those students graduated, and I got even more to join me, but they didn't want to do any of the actual work involved. I'm not sure if it's because we didn't follow Born's steps - we didn't care about each other first. It was a working group rather than a community. But sometimes many hands make no work as people hope they can tag along on the laurels of the group without actually participating. And some of that work we did is a fool's errand at this point.

And a curious response to a groups' interest in doing good deeds for the world is the crabs in a bucket phenomenon. A lot of people don't want others to raise the bar of how we should be living, so they try to discourage people who do extra work. Over my years of getting eco-school certification, I got the rare private thank-you from colleagues, but I was also openly mocked and teased for my efforts. I was completely unable to encourage anyone to be concerned enough for the fate of the world enough for them to use a reusable cup or recycle or turn off the lights whenever possible. One year, I had an eco-club that I couldn't convince to bring litterless lunches to our meetings once a week. They argued that they were just too busy in the morning to make a lunch without anything in wrappers. They couldn't see that that's the reason the club was necessary - because people think they're too busy. It's not about being busy, but about making nature a bigger priority than sleeping-in for ten more minutes. Unfortunately that was too hard a gamble for these teenagers.

So I let the EcoSchool certification lapse, and I shifted my efforts to my classroom where I have a captive audience, and I can give bonus marks if they only use good-one-side paper for my course, two bonus marks if they do it for all their courses. I even copy lines onto the paper backs for their math classes. It uses our copying budget, but no paper. And I justify the copying costs with the fact that my web-based courses don't require any handouts all year. I try to ban single-use cups (Tim's, water bottles, and pop) in class, but that's been less successful. I need a way to make that with more honey and less vinegar. Because I don't think the effectiveness of the actions has anything to do with whether or not we care about each other or whether or not we care about the planet, but whether or not we'll be rewarded for our efforts. I think that's where we're at, and where we'll stay until the bitter end. I want to believe we'll all work together for change, but we need rewards along the way. I said all this long ago here.

I'm at a loss to figure out how to get others people on board with same goals as an act of intention rather than just a happenstance or sought out meeting of people with the same goals. Born implies that our neighbourhoods are the place to go for this deep community that can lead to world-changing efforts. My neighbourhood is remarkable for its level of community building, but it all stops there. I had a meeting with a small group to suggest a few initiatives. We got side-railed for a while talking about a possible community centre with tennis courts, so we only spoke of a few things we could do as a street. A really easy thing to do is to share garbage sites. I thought we could go one better - to share across the street, so all garbage and green bins are on one side and recycling is on the other. The benefit of this is threefold:  1) The trucks can almost barrel down one side without stopping. 2) It makes it easy to see at a glance how many people on the street are participating. 3) It encourages subtle peer pressure as people notice the system and want to do the same. It sounds easy, but there were no takers. We're not up to walking to a neighbour's boulevard with our trash yet. I do it every week, but I'm having little impact on my own. I want people to share in my little acts as well as letter-writing and protesting, but I can't make people care about it enough to do some work. That's the stopper that I want to learn about, but I didn't find the answers in this book.

Baby steps.


Born's book is espousing a way to live. So maybe if it doesn't entirely teach how to cultivate community well enough to change the world, it can be a means of developing a virtuous mindset.

Born's ideas are similar to Epicurus and Jesus: we should love one another and live with a community of friends. He's more hedonistic than Epicurus who ate gruel so as not to be distracted by sensory delights of the food instead of the ideas being discussed by friends. Born's book has many paragraphs devoted to describing meals and the importance of feasts with lots of meat and sweets.

He has a collective altruism not found in Epicurus, which is more similar to Jesus, but it's much more self-centred than Jesus's writing. In many places Born suggests an economy of the community relationship - that it offers us networking, dividends, building social capital, or some expectation of something in return for our help. Born suggests we be with people to get security rather than from an outpouring of love. There's no sense of doing good deeds privately here. I was raised with the idea of giving secretly without expectation, so the notion of caring in order to build capital feels antithetical. I don't understand the idea of caring as something that can have a purpose of getting a return on your investment.

Maybe discussing the investment we make when we care for others, is an appeal to the selfishness of society. Maybe it's the only way it will actually be followed as a philosophy. But all the talk about social capital is uncomfortable to me. It's becoming friends in order to get support later. There's a significant difference between tit for tat economic relationships that track services rendered, and relationships of compassion. It might work, but it still doesn't feel like the right attitude to have with people. Kant would side with me on this one.

So far, the message I'm hearing is that it's beneficial to us to be connected to each other. I think the thrust of the argument is to stop empty gestures of support and stop joining against common enemies, but, as I said above, I think there's a time place for both of these types of communities.  

To really know what works, we need to look at what doesn't work. Some failed attempts at community don't easily fit with the categories listed. It's a chore to try to fit them in - and for little purpose. We need to have the right attitude towards people as much as possible: respectful, open and honest about our intentions and goals, and kind when we can be. We need to find people who have shared goals. They might be nearby, but they might not. Keep looking.

Potlucks are only one way to form a community, and sometimes it works better to start with the work - to find an activity that others want to join, and build community through collective action. Maybe we shouldn't need a reason to connect, but we do. When we're pulled in so many directions (kids, work, home), then potlucks have to evolve into something meaningful to continue; it can't just be about food. Either people luck out into a personal connection with each other, or people have a common goal.


Anonymous said...

An epic post that touches so many points. Perhaps some of them may be summed up by the old epithet "no good deed goes unpunished".

You offer succour - it is rejected for being too downmarket. I can't give a perfectly functioning old car away - every button, every system works, not rusty but no takers. Not an SUV you see. not cool.

The "caring" public gives blind help like continuing to donate clothes after a disaster when the Red Cross has already said three times "Enough! Clothes are not the problem. Give us a few bucks and we'll get the right stuff." Or around here a warehouse of unneeded furniture for Syrian refugees already bulging at the gills from that point-of-view. People seem unhearing and go on giving the wrong things. Rather like all the free food you couldn't eat, or the people who help by not asking "what" you need but what they think might help and they sort of know how to do that but not much else because it's beyond their zone of competence. Oft-repeated stories, I'm afraid. If I were emperor the bottled water industry would be shut down overnight and the squawks would never end from the eco-bicyclists clad in top class expensive Tour-de-France gear. So much is wasted for fashion.

I enjoyed the read but confess skipping over the Born stuff after a while. He's just another helper perhaps too enamoured with himself to understand what is really needed. And it's more than mere writing.

As for the neighbour who wouldn't listen to you the expert about deck-building but your male friend, about forty years ago I helped out a bunch of female nurses to buy cars after the first success with a girl I knew. I took great delight in getting it through the thick heads of salesmen that it wasn't me buying, but the woman. Forced them to establish eye contact with the buyer, yet called BS when necessary.

I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fatalist about the general public. Old wives' tales and prejudices remain, logic is absent and nobody really cares about recycling. The enemy is indeed us. And I'm not perfect and still put my foot in my mouth even as I try not to. We all have our blind sides. The trick is not to get upset when they're pointed out to you.

Good stuff.

Bill Malcolm

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Bill. I can believe you made it as far as you did! I found the book frustrating in that it missed the mark, so I stumbled through trying to find the missing pieces along the way.

I agree logic is largely absent these days - or maybe it always was and we're just hitting the wall of our own ineptitude finally.