Monday, April 29, 2013

Community and Value

My wife shared a story with me last night about a conversation she overheard. A student being asked about things not working well in the school and how they could be changed. The student mentioned the awards ceremony, where they give out recognition for academic achievement. Some people are not good students, some don't even try hard or care much at all about academics. This student thought they still should be recognized - that everyone has something of value that they do.

That student is crying out for community.

A school is a place of learning - that's the whole point - giving out academic awards makes sense. A community is a place where each member is significant, knows it, and is both recognized for and expected to contribute their gifts and talents. Our most basic community should be our family; sadly, it's often not the case.

The more reading I do the more I'm convinced that the counter-cultural, radical call of the gospel is to supersede that family structure and replace it with another - the family of God.

In a world where we're so intimately connected in just about every time and place, we lack that final layer of intimacy. Facebook allows me to be better friends with people than I would otherwise. I know more about people and have more interactions with people who, in a previous generation, I'd likely never see or hear from again. I think that's a positive.

The negative is how easily this connectivity masks our need for real community. As an introvert and someone better at writing than talking, it's a tough lesson to remember. I could literally spend all day online, just reading and consuming information. I suspect this is because I have a strong wife and daughter; I feel valued and appreciated enough to keep the need at bay.

Every so often, however, it sneaks out. I just feel incomplete - and it's usually because I've been missing community.

Our society would have us believe that we meet that need by going out with friends or taking a vacation. Recharge, refuel and back to normal. I've come to believe we need normal to be community - interactive, loving, supportive. That should be normal, not the exception.

We used to have this - not in a false nostalgia, 1950's fantasy kind of way - we used to be tribal. People lived, worked, ate, relied on and with each other. We were individuals and we had individual responsibility, but only in the context of community.*

Ultimately, I think it's the necessary connections that come with true community that make it difficult today. We are so imbued with the notion of self-sufficiency and independence, that we shy away from really connecting ourselves to others.

This is where we end up lonely and hurting and self-destructive. We are free of encumberances, but for what? How's that working for you? I am, after all, a pragmatist at heart.

It comes down to trust. Community requires it - and we shy away from it, run from it often. Because we've been hurt. When someone breaks trust, it's tough to trust again. I don't know the answer - other than to walk in with your eyes open. Trust someone you deem worth trusting (don't be naive), but in the same way, walk in with the expectation you'll be hurt and hurt others, that you'll need to forgive and be forgiven.

We need this. We know it.

The analogy doesn't work all the way through, but the way we do community now is sort of like relational dialysis. I can be my own person, except when I run low on intimate human interaction, then I hook myself up, get back to health and go about my business. I don't think there's a way to win that game. We need something completely different.

In the end, we're all just a kid who feels left out and unappreciated. The answer is simple - get to know the people around you well enough to value them.

*I don't think this has to be a Christian community, that is one based on Christ. I do think centering community life on Christ makes it work better and keeps it sustainable. I'll offer our move away from such community in the western world as proof of this.

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