Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Compulsion of Community

What I am about to say is going to be like trashing bunny rabbits. It's going to look like I have cleaned up dog vomit with Old Glory or tromped on the crucifix, to some. What I am about to voice my annoyance about is something that is part of our conditioning from birth -- a part that is so deeply embedded that I think many of us believe it is strictly human nature (though that is part of it, I'm sure) and, so, that going against it as a sacred necessity is nothing short of treason against existence. But I have to say it. Let the chips fall.

I'm sick of "community."

I'm sick of the obsession with it. I'm sick of hearing implications and outright edicts that make duty to community into a moral requirement. While I do think one needs to consider community and one's responsibility to it, I think it is easy for people to be bullied and guilted into a crowd-centered mentality.

It seems to me that, from the earliest (and more immediately dangerous) times, the purpose of community was to keep us safe so that we could be free to exist and, hopefully, to enjoy life. The tribe sticks together, so that if a sabre-toothed tiger comes a-hunting, ten waving torches might chase it away better than one. That sort of thing.

Community is also as source of companionship. Humans are social animals. No doubt. Even I, a proclaimed lover of solitude, seek companionship, even if I do so more rarely than others. (Let's face it: solitude wouldn't be as satisfying to me if I were forced into it by friendless, uncontrolled circumstances.)

Community can help us get things done by virtue of more pairs of hands. It can keep us from feeling isolated. But it seems to me that its ultimate purpose, when all of those bases are covered, is to win us the right to be alone and to think about ourselves, sometimes. Filling up this time alone with company, out of obligation, can be one stone too many in the pitcher . . .

I wrote, here, about the old Aesop's fable of the pitcher and the crow. In short, the crow uses stones to raise the water-level in the pitcher. I equated the stones to technology and said that technology can be useful in raising the water level so we can drink (have things we want), but if we put in too many "stones" the level will overflow and the water will spill out. Community can be a stone that brings the water closer to our beaks, but I think we rely far too much on it and wind up being thirsty in the end.

Too much time is spent in the crowd; too little in quiet living-rooms. I think this is one source of our world's insanity.

So I really don't want to hear from anyone about my obligation to community, especially since I serve a community of kids every day and help them to achieve academic success. (I'm not one of those arrogant teachers who has a bumper sticker that says that I "shape lives" and, so, deserve better pay. I may deserve better pay, but I'm not obnoxious enough to claim credit for the outcome of a life -- let alone multiple ones.)

I get calls from the university I attended asking me to donate money, as an alumnus. Didn't I shovel over tens of thousands of dollars in tuition? Didn't I pay dearly for an education? (Aren't my parents still suffering for the financial sacrifices they made in order to send me there?) I got my education, they got their money. Aren't we square? Am I a jerk because I don't want to attend alumnae functions or to pay for football tickets? I moved on. The community at Rutgers University to helped form me as an individual. I would rather emerge from that community as an individual than remain immersed in it forever. And I don't feel connected to it simply so that I can prove how well I have done, either. (I think some hold on to their old schools for that reason.) Truthfully, I couldn't care a jot less how the Rutgers football team does this season.

(If you feel a connection to a school, don't get mad at me. What you feel is what you feel. I just don't want to be told I'm wrong for not feeling the same thing.)

Politics? World affairs? Am I obligated to keep up with them and get tangled up in them? Do I need to sacrifice my life to the good of the world population? Isn't it enough that I care about my students and that I pour my energies into their well-being -- going well beyond the things I get paid for "on the clock"? Do I need to turn my back on my own life and picket for social reform?

Maybe I'm selfish.

You know, the armies need mechanics to keep the machines of war moving. If everyone were out fighting and sleeping on the hot dirt with sand fleas, the war would grind to a literal halt. But does anyone fault the mechanics for finishing their shift and going home to their TVs and their beds?

Not only do I think there is nothing wrong with claiming a space for our own lives in each day, but I believe it is everyone's right. I think compulsive attachment to community is a sickness that lots of people suffer from. I think we all need to be strong enough to leave community behind, sometimes, and to leave communities we are no longer part of behind forever.

Enjoying the company of others is nice, but needing it is weak. I acknowledge a need for community, but I will not be guilted into being diluted into the crowd or guilted into attending a shindig where they serve watery beer and play music so loudly that no one can talk.


  1. I think there's a point of intersection here with my occasional rants about turning off your deity-condemned cell phone already.

  2. 'nora -- Don't get me started on cell phones . . . I'm with you. Somewhere, I think I might have ranted about thatm, too . . .

  3. Oh man... I wasn't sure where you were going with this at first, Chris... but by the end I realized you had struck a major chord with me. Especially the part about feeling pressure to go out there and "picket for social reform." I have family members who like to climb onto very large pedestals and rant on facebook about how dreadful society is. Mind you, they're doing this from the comfort of their homes and not actually acting on all the instructions they are giving others on how they should be and think. I find all their blabber frustrating and think that maybe if they would back off of trying to change the world through facebook statuses that maybe they'd find peace and happiness. And you're right... I may not be out there picketing but I'm giving my all to my students every day and that makes me feel pretty damn good.

  4. Yep, Elise. Social reform starts with on person at a time, I think -- on the inside.

  5. I'm with you on this, Chris. My inborn cranky introversion aside, a brief, youthful flirtation with activism left me feeling like a dupe when I saw how I was being used, and lied to, to advance other people's individual interests.

    More recently, a coworker tried to organize a sort of "mandatory volunteerism" program. It soon became clear she was creating another line item for her MBA application.

    I've found that people get really angry with you even when you decline their invitation to "community" in the politest possible way. Extroverted activist types assume the rest of us aren't pulling our weight because we don't blab about it all the time.

  6. "Extroverted activist types assume the rest of us aren't pulling our weight because we don't blab about it all the time."

    Every once in awhile, a comment finds the essence of what my ramblings were all about, Jeff. Awesome.

  7. I'm sick of "community." - Yay. Go, Chris. I'm with you (or perhaps not with you, in the circumstances) all the way.

  8. Thanks, Z. When you think about it, maybe people like us, agreeing about ideas from different continents, is more like it.