I’ve taken to checking the Daily Prompt on the WordPress Daily Post blog. I rarely have the time to be able to spontaneously write to the topic on a given day, but one that came up this week was the prompt: Idyllic.
“What does your ideal community look like? How is it organized, and how is community life structured? What values does the community share?”
I’m not always aware of it, but community is a powerful theme in my life. I guess it’s a powerful theme in everybody’s life. But I think it’s something that we often take for granted- by which I mean we don’t necessarily look at it that closely, stop to think about it, consider how we relate to it and how it relates to us.
You hear a lot in Western countries about the ‘breakdown’ of community. There’s some truth in the concern. Also some misconceptions. What it reflects, though, is that people have the perception that they are less connected to other people, at least on some level.
In the humanitarian industry, you hear a lot about community. Here, the community is some assumed state in which people live, by which they are connected, and hence becomes a vehicle through which assistance can be delivered. Hence ‘community development’. Again, there is truth, and there are misconceptions.
It’s a critical concept when it comes to understanding society, and how society changes (or, if you believe in such things, how society can be intentionally changed). There is a monolith of literature out there on the subject- entire tertiary education courses- and I’m not about to hack a review of it here. But spending part of my life living in the west, and part of my time living in ‘developing’ nations where community is assumed to be happening, I get to see both sides of the story. And in addition, the notion of community has very personal implications for me.
Community. Co- together. Unity- a state of oneness. The notion that many individuals are some how joined or connected, maintaining their unique status as individuals (to varying extents), but also creating some larger unit through a set of social or interpersonal interactions.
Central to the notion of community is a shared commonality. In its most traditional sense, community tends to relate to people who share a common set of physical resources- space, fundamentally, because until very recently, meaningful and regular interaction over any distance greater than the voice could carry was not possible. Hunter-gatherer ‘communities’ would have shared food resources, labour, care functions. As time went on, traditional notions of community are centred on the shared space of a sedentary settlement, with the sharing of resources varying between communal and individualistic, depending on social structures in place.
Urbanization confronted the limitations of community- that there are only so many social contacts that humans can continue to maintain with any sense of meaning (the number is generally thought to be around 150, give or take). Thus the fragmentation of community into sub-units. Communities could be formed around geographical neighbourhoods or communes. But they could also be formed around other things, such as professions (a new development under urbanization and the higher levels of regimentation of resources and labour division that are required to make it function), or social status, or, as things such as leisure time increased with the creation of excess resources, interest-groups.
The notion of community is now accepted to mean a wide range of things today. We have ‘communities of practice’- professional bodies who occupy a certain academic or professional niche within an industry. The ‘online community’ via which you may well have connected to this article. The ‘international community’, of which I claim citizenship, and whose members are joined by the very notion of their placelessness- or, more accurately, their routine orbiting around a certain set of geographical hubs and professional millieus.
In the west, this increase in the placelessness of community appears to be correlated, whether causally or not, with a decline in place-based community, particularly urban environments. People in suburbs complain they don’t even know the names of their next-door neighbours. In apartments, people don’t necessarily know who is on their block. We live behind closed doors, behind fences.
This isn’t universal. There are some very vibrant urban and even suburban communities. But this is the perceived trend.
There is also a certain nostalgia for the perception of the community that once was. This might be harking back to the ‘golden era’ of the fifties and sixties, when suburbanization was a new trend, and at its heart was the notion of being good neighbours, where people on the street might have known each other fairly intimately. Or it might be reflective of some idealized utopia of the village of the medieval times, when people lived in close connection with the land, shared labour, common problems, and were in constant social interaction with people who lived close to them, who they saw regularly, and with whom interactions therefore took on a higher level of meaning.
This hunger isn’t misplaced at its source. People crave interaction with one another, as a rule, and mental or social disorders notwithstanding. Enough studies have demonstrated a close correlation between morbidity and mortality and social connectivity, and even net happiness and social connectivity. It is hardwired into us, whether by a relational creator God, or the eons of social interdependence that gave our species an edge in natural selection, or some combination of the two.
And when my day to day routine- collecting food for the family, for example- involves interacting with somebody who I know intimately as a neighbour, rather than somebody I might recognize but whose name I don’t even know, these daily routines take on a different value. They serve not just the purpose of meeting physical need, but also meeting that embedded need for social connectivity.
Because in our social interactions, we need meaning. And when our day is devoid of meaningful social interaction, but simply involves tasks, it loses meaning.
The virtualization of community, then, means that more and more social interactions are seperated by either spatial or temporal distance- either we have remote forms of communication (phone, Twitter, Facebook), or we link up with those people in the communities we identify with on a less frequent basis (such as going to church on a Sunday, when we might get the bulk of our meaningful social interaction). Which I believe contributes to this sense of dissatisfaction.
Although I am of the Western European model of decreasing emphasis on spatially-oriented community, I feel I have been lucky enough to be part of some beautiful communities. As an adult, most of those communities have been faith-based, although not necessarily church-based. At university, I had a close group of friends who I would see most weeks, usually several times a week, all brought together by our Christian faith and certain practical outworkings of that faith. We shared very close personal interactions, supported one another, and genuinely loved spending time together, and I recall those times very fondly. They kept me sane through my university years, and I missed them deeply when I left the UK.
More recently, in my late 20s I was part of another faith-based, non-church community, this time quite a small and intimate group of friends who were seperated by a bit more distance than we were at university, but still saw each other on a nearly weekly basis. With my constant travel schedule, it was the first time since I’d left university where I truly felt connected to a group of people, and they provided a safe and warm place to connect to others.
Just a few years back, I transitioned into a third faith-based community, this one characterized more by people who felt a hunger to explore their faith and ask difficult questions they did not feel they could ask in the established church. Of the three communities, this was by far the most structured, in that we met regularly, and our meetings had some sort of order to them, but by the same token, in its own way was also the most sprawling, in that the community took on quite a robust nature for a time, providing practical assistance at various points for one another, and with very intentional efforts to see that community managed, to see struggling members encouraged, and even, at one stage, an attempt to establish a leadership structure to better help it grow and continue.
Throughout all of this, I have been part of another community that I’m very fond of, which can alternatively be given the label ‘international community’ or ‘humanitarian community’, although in practice it’s a very small subset of those that I have any right to call ‘my’ community. They are the people who I interact with in different parts of the world on my professional assignments, who share common humanitarian values, with whom I share often intense experiences, common worldviews (for the most part) in politics and leisure (see: adrenaline junkie), many of whom I see repeatedly in different locations time and time again, some of whom I’ve never met face-to-face but know just from virtual communication that I would get on very well with, but with whom I feel none the less very connected in a meaningful way. They are people I can meet in almost any pub in any expat-occupied city in the world and, even if I haven’t seen them in five years, can instantly strike up a rapport with and pick up like we were never apart. And I know many of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about.
Of the three faith-based communities I have mentioned, the first essentially came to a close when university ended and we all went our separate ways, to keep in intermittent touch, but now spread all over the globe- in China, the UK, South Africa, and wherever the heck I am these days. The second, I still see the members of regularly and am very fond of them, but my long-term assignment in PNG saw my engagement with that community transition out, and during my absence, the nature of that community also changed as circumstances changed.
To some extent, the third community was linked to the changing of that second. And in many ways, the story of that community is the most interesting, because it was the closest to an ‘intentional’ community, but also walked that challenging line of having some structure that enabled it to function, while remaining flexible and meeting the needs of a group of people who were very suspicious of structure in the first place- that being the reason they wanted to be in the group. It was a paradox, and for the first while, it flourished. Then circumstances changed, the needs of community members shifted, and the community ultimately ended. MIO and I met through that community, and are still in touch with most of the members of that group regularly, and we even meet up regularly, although the nature of interactions has changed very much over the last 2 years.
The fourth community, of course, is in many ways the most unsustainable, in that at any given time, I am interacting with a very small portion of that community directly, and however stimulating I find engaging with it, it can only ever contribute a small portion to my social needs.
In short, although virtual community can be a good and supportive thing, I strongly believe that most people require some degree of meaningful interaction in a shared physical and temporal space.
Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for everybody. It does seem to apply to most people I know. But I know I speak for both MIO and I, because we talk about it regularly: We crave that.
So perhaps, if I start trying to answer the question posed at the start of this piece, the first thing I would look for in an idyllic community would be a community that shares time and space. That is in close enough proximity to be able to enjoy regular face-to-face activities and interactions together.
Being at a bit of a life-crossroads at the moment (a story for another place and time), MIO and I have been exploring what practical steps we can take to increase our social connectiveness- to actively seek out community. To that end, we visited an ‘intentional community’ on the outskirts of Melbourne.
Moora Moora has existed on a forested hilltop between Healesville and Warburton since the early 1970s- almost 40 years. It would be easy to dismiss the place as a hippy commune. In fact, while it shared a vision for shared resources and communal living, the community’s values, charter and approach to intentionality were very much the brainchild of a highly academic sociologist, who helped found the settlement, who lives there to this day, and who plans to die there.
The story of Moora Moora is long and fascinating, and I won’t go into any detail here. The community is spread out over a few hundred hectares of hilltop bush, with half a dozen clusters of homes, each cluster made up of four or five households, that cluster then becoming the basic unit of interaction and management within the community. Each individual is expected to contribute one day of labour to community tasks each month, but is otherwise free to live according to their own needs.
The community has gone through ups and downs- nearly becoming extinct on a couple of occasions, while thriving at others. Relationship- and conflict- management has clearly been central to the success and otherwise of aspects of community life. Meetings and administration are a necessary component.
There is a real beauty to the lifestyle that’s been established there, however. The houses are mostly non-traditional- some wooden, others adobe-mud, all of them quirky and built by the community members. Trees encroach close to the properties, and there is a strong sense of closeness to nature. A small communal vegetable garden contributes to each household’s monthly food basket. Water is piped from a natural spring, so pure it requires no treatment, and the community is off the grid and largely self-sufficient in energy needs.
Moora Moora is currently facing a crisis as many of the long-standing members are now well into their sixties and older, and are beginning to struggle to meet the physical demands of the lifestyle, but there are no guidelines in place to regulate their transition, nor has there been an influx of younger people to support the elders.
Sadly, another challenge- one that floored MIO and I, who both love the idea of spending more time working the land, and are quite open to the idea of sharing some labour and resources- is that some members of the community refuse to contribute their one day a month of labour. We couldn’t believe that people could be selfish enough to verbally commit to supporting a community (which provides a low cost of living in a beautiful environment, and a unique opportunity that many people would love to take up) and then refuse to play their part, when expectations are so low. A day a month contributing to common needs really isn’t that much, and instead people are just taking. A real shame, and one that made us wonder how much longer Moora Moora will remain viable.
Moora Moora isn’t for us. But it gave us a lot of food for thought, and forced us to consider what we actually wanted from a community- a conversation we’re still having.
One thing I realised up there, among the trees, is that I need to see the sky. It’s not that I don’t like trees- on the contrary, I love being in forest, and thick jungle, and trees are gorgeous. The more the merrier. But I love being somewhere I can see great expanses of sky, too, and I think to live, this inspires me more than a hilltop forest. It’s also why I don’t really like urban and suburban environments- because there’s all that clutter of rooftops and cables and buildings crowding the horizon. Perhaps it’s the photographer in me. But I’ve always loved big open spaces- the prairies, the mountains, the desert. MIO loves the sea. I love the sky.
Which makes me reflect. If the first thing I’m looking for in a community is the sharing of physical space and time, then somewhere in there, the nature of that physical space needs to play a part. Many of my best memories of shared experience and community have occurred outside urban environments. There is definitely a part of me that would prefer my ideal community to be rural, not urban.
MIO and I both value nature. We’re greenies at heart. We’re not perfect, but we’d like to get better at reducing the environmental impact of our lifestyle. MIO talks a lot about the notion of being ‘connected to the land’- recognizing that everything we have and everything we consume comes, on some level, from nature, and has an impact on nature, and that therefore, we should seek to live in a way that minimizes negative impact and maximises sustainability. She’d love to grow more of our own food, and rely less on vertically-integrated mega-corporations. I’m 100% on board with that. So another aspect of my ideal community would be a community that is closely connected to nature and the environment.
All of the communities that I’ve been intimately involved with and that have affected my life have involved a shared set of values- and important values at that. Either the shared values of the Christian faith, or the humanitarian values that most aid workers I am close to connect with. I think for community to thrive, it needs to share a set of meaningful values. An ideal community for me would share faith-based, humanitarian and ecological values.
The most engaged communities of people are, in my experience, communities that depend on one another. They help each other out, offering support for practical tasks or emotional needs. They share resources on some level- although a lesson we took from Moora Moora was that a level of individuality and independence is also critical in communities, just as it is within a family group. They are also vulnerable to one another- needs are expressed, and trust reciprocated. An ideal community for me would involve some level of interdependence, and a high level of trust. It would also allow family groups and individuals to remain somewhat independent at the same time.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but if the ideal community shares space and time, then it also shares certain activities. Spending time on shared activities- whether pleasurable or functional- creates shared experience, which in turn creates bonds between people, building relationship and building community. So an ideal community for me would engage in shared recreational activities, and would also labour together on shared tasks for the benefit of one another.
Ultimately, though, I suppose what I would be looking for from the idyllic community would be a community that adds value and meaning to life. It creates enjoyable, peaceful and grace-filled interactions. It contributes to making our physical environment better and reducing social injustice. It celebrates spiritually. It adds satisfaction and fulfillment to the completion of the daily tasks of survival. It creates a millieu in which children are loved, supported, encouraged and enabled. It shares tasks and resources in a sustainable way that facilitates the creation of free space and time to be able to watch the sky, to pursue dreams, and simply to dream.
I think this is what my idyllic community would look like. So if you find it, could you send us the address please.
All photos my own.