What is a smile worth, or a hug when you’re feeling bad? Community is the experience of sharing and depending on others. Consumer ideology tends to go in the opposite direction of community. We are taught to compete against others for jobs and opportunity. Consumerism creates an ‘us against them’ mentality that destroys our sense of common purpose. If we are to get ahead, someone else must fall behind. And even if others join our ‘hate group’ we still end up feeling condescension towards each other. Rivalry corrodes relationship and destroys community. Sharing mutual concern for each other binds us together in community.
Communities are made up of families and homes, the place where we feel a sense of ‘belongingness’. There is something that stabilizes us when we belong, when we know where we come from, when our roots feed us even when we’re no longer there. If our sense of community or family has been lost we feel cut off and adrift. We derive value in a connection to the place we call “home” an identity that has a deeper meaning than just the name of the state or city in which we were born. Home may be the house we grew up in, our parents, the source of our beginning. Home may be the street on which we grew up. It may be the view of the ocean, mountains, rolling farm land, or cactus dotted deserts. Home may be the people we remember, the teacher, minister, or musician on the corner. Whatever we think of as home, we carry this identity with us throughout life, no matter how far we travel or change. Home grounds us and our rootedness gives meaning and stability to our life.
We are witnessing a significant erosion of both home and community in our society. A large part of this is due to consumerism and globalization, the ability to purchase commodities made far away, distancing us from the people and places they were manufactured. Were the shoes we bought manufactured by child labor? We don’t know. Was the food grown unsustainably in fields drenched with toxic chemicals? We don’t know. Are businesses exploiting developing countries? We don’t know. We only know that we need shoes. We need food. We need a job so we can pay for shoes and food. When everything we purchase comes from somewhere else we are no longer living in community, we no longer know the people who grow our food and make our shoes.
We are also losing the connection to family and home because of how we spend our leisure time. Reading email, surfing the web, checking social media are leisure time activities that we do most often alone. These activities reduce the amount of time families play together, eat together, or talk about their day. Children rarely play outside with other children, they prefer to play in their room on the computer. Parents organize their children’s leisure time filling it with after school classes or team sports they believe are necessary to enrich their child’s life. Even sports that used to be played in community have become organized around highly profitable businesses and travel teams. It appears family time is a consumer product, something to be bought and sold.
Knowing who we are, where we come from, our origins, and belonging to a community is all part of developing a healthy psychology. Working and playing with others we know well and depend upon is part of community. When we know and like ourselves we are able to like others. If we don’t like our self, we tend not to like others. Hatred, bigotry, and racial prejudice lead to an unhealthy psychology that prevents us from being happy.
When we think of a happy person what do we imagine? A happy person is someone that often laughs because they see humor in life’s situations. A happy person has good health and well-being. A happy person finds new people as interesting as they do familiar friends. A happy person really listens when you talk to them and is secure enough to tell you honestly what they think. A happy person is someone who feels loved and in turn loves others.
A gift economy is the opposite of a consumer economy, and gardening is truly one of the last gift economies that are still thriving. Growing food in a garden encourages sharing. Gardner’s share advice, plants, seeds, and produce. “Where did you get that beautiful plant?” “How do you get such big tomatoes?” “Please give me the recipe for this dip!” When a neighborhood has gardens, people are neighborly. You will share and receive fresh flowers or herbs, a bag of tomatoes, cucumbers, or zucchini; the excess from the garden. You will visit with neighbors over the garden fence. There is no sense of exchanging things of equal value, as in a consumer economy. In fact, when my garden is producing too much, I am thankful that someone is willing to take what I offer. It doesn’t matter if they give me anything in return.
Another community growing activity is the potluck meal in which everyone brings food to share. Of all my memories from childhood the church potluck picnic is my favorite. Tables covered with homemade food; children running about playing; adults sitting around talking. People look you square in the face and ask “How are things going?” and you feel safe enough to tell them the truth. Maybe ‘not so good’ and it’s nice to finally unburden yourself. Maybe ‘something great has happened’ and you love to share the good news. After lunch the adults would organize a softball game and everyone cheered for both teams. This type of community gathering makes communities stronger.
Communities are places occupied by families and people who help when you need it. We can depend upon each other. Communities are places where people don’t need laws to tell us how to behave towards each other. Our concern for our place in community controls how we behave. Is everyone perfect? No. But it wouldn’t be a community if we didn’t have someone to talk about! Hard to be arrogant when others have known you at your worst as well as your best. Can communities become too enclosed, walled off from new thinking and change? Yes. But the opposite extreme is the World Wide Web where we are not walled off from much of anything.
Every time we turn on the T.V., surf the internet, or open social media platforms we are opening up to a flow of information that can be toxic and damaging. There is a lot of negative comments and fake news stories spread on social media, cyber bullying that has become all too common. Social media has become the worst form of social pollution.
The question to ask ourselves is “How does this make me feel?” If what we read or hear makes us feel sad, confused, and miserable, then it’s pollution, it’s polluting our mind. We can seldom do much to change the bad situations we hear and read about in the news. And what we can’t control, we can’t be responsible for. So when we read a story and imagine ourselves in someone’s place and feel bad, it isn’t a real and genuine life experience, we are merely being voyeurs.
What real purpose does it serve to watch stories about the horrors or violence that happens to others in the world; so that we can feel depressed? By all means be informed and change your life where you can so that your consumption patterns make a difference. I’m not suggesting ignorance is bliss. I’m saying that ingesting negative disturbing information about things we can’t change is like eating junk food, it has no nutritional value. It just makes us emotionally and mentally sick and depressed.
The places where we can act are at home and within our community. Find ways to connect with the people around you. Have a conversation with your husband, wife or child. Make friends with your neighbor by stopping to talk when you see them outside. Shop locally. Get involved in your community through volunteer work or join an organization that does work you support. Become a better friend to yourself. Shut off the computer or phone and read a book now and then. Enjoy a relationship with the writer.
Stop looking for happiness in consumption, shopping for stuff you don’t need. Find your place, your home and community and occupy it. Sometimes there will be sadness, but there is something you can do about it. You can be there, for real, in person. And you will also be there to share the happiness too. You will experience the richness of belonging.