Community: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”
by Paul Stahnke for Episyllogism
Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about ‘community’. For me, ‘community’ is the idea of belonging, feeling at peace with other people, and with where and how I live. This is an odd concept because I often go for days on end without speaking to anyone beyond my wife, Michelle. Every Wednesday morning I drive into town in order to visit my mother who is slowly dying in a care facility. I usually buy a few groceries, woodshop products, or welding supplies. I also meet with a local discussion group for one hour. In addition to following a formal meeting format, about 45 minutes is spent discussing a scheduled topic. Sometimes, a member might talk about a particular family situation or experience that has been bothering them, but by and large the meeting topic organises the flow of ideas into a particular theme. There is no cross talk that might hijack discussion although the thoughts of one member might be taken up by another, and so on. There is no formal order of member participation. Sometimes, there is silence. For unknown reasons, in this small group simple silence is quite pleasant and allows a time for reflection. The experience can only be described as ‘intimate’, for we share our most private concerns and thoughts. The size of the group varies between 10-18 people, and usually I am the only male. The ages range from 40 – 80, and group members come from all walks of life.
Last Wednesday’s topic was, ‘belonging’. I found it pretty hard to separate the sense of ‘community’ from this theme.
Today, while thinking more about this concept, I researched and subsequently read an article from a CS Lewis website. The author is Art Lindsey (senior fellow), and the article title is: “Community – and why we need it….Love is never stimulated apart from community”. One particular quote caught my eye, “When we live our lives in isolation, what we have is unavailable and what we lack is unprocurable”. (Basil, an early Church Father). It goes on to say, “When we live our lives independently, other people are poorer because they cannot benefit from our gifts”. And, “When we isolate ourselves, we are poorer because the benefits of other’s gifts are lost to us, so what we lack, we cannot get”. [Source]
Why do people often feel isolated and estranged when living in large groups or in today’s western societies?
An excerpt from a Globe and Mail article states it this way:
“Chronic loneliness has roots that are both internal and external, a combination of genes and social circumstance, but something is making it worse. Blame the garage-door opener, which keeps neighbours from seeing each other at the end of the day, or our fetish for roads over parks, or the bright forest of condo towers that bloom on our city’s skylines.
Or blame an increasingly self-absorbed society, as John Cacioppo does. Prof. Cacioppo, the leading authority on the health effects of loneliness, is director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “One of the things we’ve seen is a movement away from a concern for others,” he says in a phone interview. “Economics basically says you should be concerned about your own short-term interests. There’s more division in society, more segmentation; there’s less identity with a national or global persona, but rather on the family or the individual. People aren’t as loyal to their employers, and employers are certainly not as loyal to their workers.”
Last fall, an old school friend came for a visit. It did not go well. I had really been looking forward to seeing him and made sure we had lots of food and wine. Michelle left to visit her sister and we were planning to fish, cook out on the fire, and generally get caught up. After a day I found myself wishing he would just stop talking. It was incessant, and while it was certainly company, there was absolutely no connection left in our lives. I tried to understand why I felt that way? I was also upset at my attitude. What had changed in the last 15 years? I’m not sure, but I did have a few ideas. One, in that time cell phones came into existence and have since morphed into the ever-present smart phones with camera; being connected, supposedly. Cell phones don’t work at our house but we do have Wi-Fi. He ran around taking picture after picture and continually tried to phone or text his wife. He would interrupt a walk or talk with, “Wait one second, I’ve got to ‘get’ this”. He brought up other people from our past and I had only a vague recollection of what they looked like. Finally, I told him that I hadn’t really thought about school after I had left. I suppose the main reason for our bad visit is that I have changed; I am no longer the same person.
We no longer lived in the same ‘community’.
As I write this I glance up and look at the river. The bulbs are finally starting in on a good bloom and the rain is a gentle spring shower. The leaves are still off so I can see our neighbours place across the river, about a km away. They have a barn with a bright red steel roof. We have two other neighbours in a different direction, and their homes are about 200’ away. To the immediate north of us, we have no neighbours. There is only a park-like forest, with a few hiking trails. Despite the distances, this is the most intimate and connected community I have ever lived in. I contrast this to my Wednesday trips to my old home, Campbell River. It is crowded with cars and hard to make left turns. I know a few residents and care aids where my Mom lives. I know my group members, of sort. If I stop at the store I often talk with other Sayward shoppers, or occasionally an old student or flying customer. I usually end the excursion with a visit to Cantons, where the waitress just waves and places my order when I walk through the door. I sit by myself but recognize many of the customers. Sometimes I meet up with old friends, but actually prefer to sit by myself. It feels like home. It is my community. I had never felt this way when we lived in town, but now as a visitor, I do.
Twenty five years ago I was working out of Watson Lake, YT. One afternoon I had to drop off a plane load of mourners at Ft Ware, a native village on the Finlay River 220 miles south. The village had about 200 people, and it was like travelling back to the past, or maybe into a Mad Max movie set. There was the usual collection of shacks every native village has. Strewn about were oil drums, broken down snow machines, fishing nets on poles, and old boat motors. There were dogs, lots of dogs, and little kids laughing and hiding behind their parent’s legs, peaking out, smiling, with snot running down. The whole village came out to watch the plane arrive, and I always suspected they were looking for a crash. It was a dodgy place to land because the strong river current required an upstream landing, always, despite whatever the wind was doing. There was no dock, but you had to power into the bank and try and tie up to a beached boat before being swept back downstream. No one helped because the river bank was muddy. Young males always wore cut off jean jackets and had leather wrist bands with studs, for both looks and fighting. They were pretty tough. The girls were cute, but beyond shy. I simply never talked to them for there was no reason to. Everyone chewed Copenhagen and spit. After I tied off to the boat and helped the passengers out, the villagers wandered away. Only the dogs remained.
On this particular trip a little old man did something different. He knelt down to where he could see under the wing and asked if I could take him and his family out to his trap line on Wisener Lake, about 50 miles out of my way? I couldn’t, I told him, because I didn’t have enough fuel, but in a few days the otter would be down with the rest of the mourners. I assured him the pilot would take him then. With that, I left.
Two weeks later I was back at Ft Ware, just why? I don’t remember. However, the old man was still there, patiently waiting for me. I sat down on the float ladder and asked him why he did not fly out with the otter, last week?
“I told the other pilot you would be waiting”, I said. “I told him to pack extra fuel”.
“He said he couldn’t do it, and he left”, was the reply.
“Okay”, I said. “Let’s get everything down here and see what we can do”.
His smile was instant, reward enough. I didn’t have enough fuel to get home with a stop at Wisener, but decided I could pop over to Dease Lake and get some. While he went and rounded up his family I tried to phone my base on the HF radio. Of course and like always, the signals were out. “Oh well”, I thought. “No big deal. I’ll phone from Dease and let them know why I am running late”. Soon, he was back with his ancient wife, some dogs, little grand kids, guns, Trapper Nelson packs, boxes of flour, biscuits, and jam. I pulled the seats out and shoved them in the back of the plane and made up some new seats with the gear. The group slid down the bank and into a boat. From there I boosted them in and got them settled and shoved two dogs up in behind them. We took off and climbed up over the ridge into the next valley, landing on Wisener and paddling in to a beach at the north end. After unloading, everyone forming a line to pack the gear onto the sand, the old man walked back up the floats to speak with me.
“I don’t have the money right now”, he said. “Tell Stanley I will pay him when I get trapping again. I’ll pay him in the winter some time”.
“Don’t worry about it”, my reply, “I’m sure Stanley will be just fine with everything”.
He stepped back off the floats and I looked back at the group as I fired up. The little kids were racing around and laughing. The grandmother was already setting up their camp near an old cabin. The old man just stood back watching the plane taxi out, a big broad smile on his face. “I’m in shit now”, I thought. “Late, unauthorized trip, divert to Dease for fuel, two hours extra flight time for no money, and no one knows where I even am”. Fuelling in Dease I asked Ray Sandy if he would phone my base and let them know I was on my way home. Ray owned the competing airline, BC Yukon Air Service. “Another nail in my coffin”, I thought. (We never bought fuel from BC Yukon or worked with them.) “Oh well” I sighed, “No time like the present for change”.
After landing back in Watson and fuelling and cleaning up my aircraft I met Stanley at the office. I still had paperwork to do and had to account for my time. He wanted to know why I was so late, but also mentioned that Ray Sandy had phoned with my message and my eta (estimated time of arrival). I explained the day and why I chose to conduct my unauthorised trip for no money. He stopped me with one statement after holding up his hand.
“Good for you”, he exclaimed. “That would have been Morris. Morris does not do well in town. The booze, everything is nuts. He needs to be in the bush with his family. He will pay us back. It might take a year, but he will always pay. I’m glad you did what you did. It’s what we do up here”.
I have never forgotten that day or what the message was. Here I was, a southern white man, just working for a summer season. They paid me well and treated me like I belonged. Because I worked for Watson Lake Flying Services (a business operating for 35 years), and for Stan and Jimmy (who owned the business), I was accepted into the community we serviced. It crossed race, huge distances, different cultures, age, lifestyles; everything. For that afternoon I was a big part of the life of a little old native man who barely spoke English.
One day I broke down in Mayo, YT. It was 250 miles to the northwest. I needed a voltage regulator for a Cessna 185, and a new battery. At the hotel I mentioned who I worked for and it was like the seas parted. The owner dropped what he was doing and cooked a meal for me. He then drove me over to the auto-parts store where I could buy a regulator and battery. (Ford parts work on Lycoming engines). He helped me fix the machine and made sure I got away safely. The last I saw of him was a gentle wave as he trudged back to his truck. Jimmy had been born in Mayo. He used to haul water for people during winter. They were just paying back in kind.
From the Globe and Mail:
“Shaheen Shivji was happier in Kabul. There were bombs going off outside the compound where she worked for a development agency, but she preferred life in the Afghan capital to the one she had at home in Abbotsford, B.C., for one simple reason: She wasn’t lonely.
“For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t feel isolated,” she says. “I felt socially connected, I was with like-minded people. I was doing something important to better the world.”
Afghanistan became too dangerous and, after a year, Ms. Shivji moved back to B.C., where she lives with her parents and works as a communications manager for local government. She has one friend she texts regularly, but otherwise her old university crowd has married and drifted away. She yearns for simple connection in her life, to meet a friend regularly for coffee or a movie, to occasionally feel a kind hand on her arm. Work is her main source of satisfaction.
The toll of her loneliness isn’t just emotional. At 44, she feels tired, distracted, unable to concentrate. It’s an effort to get to the gym. Over the phone, her voice becomes strained. “I just feel sad most of the time.”
Ms. Shivji feels like she’s on the outside looking in and, in that sense, she’s not alone.
In the West, we live faster, higher in the air, farther from our workplaces, and more singly than at any time in the past. Social scientists will be struggling to understand the consequences of these transformations for decades to come, but one thing is clear: Loneliness is our baggage, a huge and largely unacknowledged cultural failing”.
Shaheen’s experience of living appears to be one most of us would not choose. Hopefully, she will find a connection to others and an eventual place in her own ‘community’. I believe she can do this with a deliberate effort. The paradox is unsettling, though. As most of the world increasingly urbanises in order to simply find employment and survive, it seems harder and harder to do so. Go to any restaurant and see groups of people sitting at the same table, not visiting or laughing, but heads down in their phones. They will leave the restaurant and climb into a car cocoon further linked to electronic entertainment. Those who take transit will carefully choose a safe seat, refrain from eye or physical contact with other passengers, and settle back behind their own electronic walls. As the size of our communities grow, isolation increases. As a busy and prosperous life offers more and more, it further impoverishes; as if there is a set amount of engagement people can take.
Tomorrow will be Wednesday, my town day. As I head out of the Valley in my 31 year old truck locals will wave at me. My radio and cd player no longer work, and I have chosen not to fix them. Instead, I will just drive and think; just be.
I have three stops to make before visiting an old friend who has been away for four months in Viet Nam. I look forward to seeing him. After, I will visit with my mother who no longer sees or speaks, but I know the care aids will appreciate my being there. I also have a few other residents I speak with. Then, I have my meeting to attend, and a lunch to consume. When I drive into to the Valley every passing vehicle will wave back, and after parking and a walk up to the house my dog will twist and turn with joy.
My wife will hug me, and ask, “How are things in town?”
Looking out the window at Paul’s place.