We talk about community a lot. The word gets thrown around so much that it begins to lose its meaning. It begins to sound like just another empty word… like sustainability or vibrancy or placemaking or excellence.
Community is fundamental to human life on earth. We are not solitary creatures. We exist in context with those around us in a shared reality that we co-create in real time. We are able to shape this reality and accomplish great things only by working with others, by engaging, by being a part of the world together.
We are born into the world as individuals. We exist as part of a family. As we grow, we surround ourselves with others with whom we have some affinity of one kind or another. This may be interest-based, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a community of people who all hang out at the same place, or who all live in the same area, or who all play the same multiplayer game online, or who all work in the same industry. Communities don’t have to physically meet to exist, but the bonds formed by meeting in person tend to be much stronger.
What is important in our communities are the depths of interactions that we have with others, the levels of trust that we build, the ability that we have to teach and to learn from each other, and the support of all kinds that we provide for other members. Fundamentally, communities are groups in which members take care of each other.
Community is natural. It’s hard wired into us. But we’re losing it. In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, he chronicles the decline of all forms of civic engagement in America since the early 1970’s. People are withdrawing into themselves and out of the public sphere, and have been for nearly 50 years. This trend has been significantly intensified by the social media addiction that has rapidly captured the attention of more than a billion of us in the last five years: we click “like” over and over again, and we receive a tiny endorphin rush, just like we’re having an actual human connection with another person, without any actual connection to anyone at all.
We have to get our faces out of the screens and engage with other humans, as deeply and as often as we can. That’s how we build community. And that’s how we will survive as a species. We are all, actually, in this shared reality together, and the only way to change it is to work together in community.