I’m a self-confessed life-long lone wolf; always have been and always will be. Being one of those people who are quite comfortable in their own company has many advantages – not least of which is the lack of a need for an ever increasing cadre of ‘friends’ and therefore not feeling lonely as often as others might. That’s not the same as reclusive and introverted, I can and do interact well when in company, but if I’m to be brutally honest company is not something I seek out too often and when I do I’m ridiculously selective who I want to spend my time with. I explain this attachment to solitude by citing the fact that I work in a people intensive situation where my job requires me to talk to people all day long and when I’m on ‘my time’ I like to balance that amount of interaction with a healthy amount of introspection. Measuring that balance has always been a challenge to me and especially since I have a very healthy respect for the notion of community.
The term ‘community’ apparently came from an old French word – communité – which in turn came from the latin word – communitas. Each depending on the latin root – com – meaning ‘with/together’. A community can be anything from a simple group of like minded people who have a level of reliance upon each other – say a family for instance – to an entire diaspora such as all of the people of Irish descent scattered across the globe. Obviously these groups are formed from people with something in common – another word using the latin root ‘com’ – and building upon that commonality. A feature of community is the notion of social capital, a form of goodwill built up through mutual sharing and support. Social capital is, rather ironically, collapsing over the past couple of decades despite the invention of social networking. Robert D. Putnam wrote a book – Bowling Alone – in 2000 outlining 25 years of research in the US where the notion of community was collapsing to such an extent that people actually engaged in activities alone that were designed for group participation.
Humans are basically gregarious by nature, of course we are, because if we weren’t we’d die out. But the survival of the species is not the only reason to perpetuate the concept of community, we need the community and social capital structure for a whole variety of reasons. These include security – otherwise children and old people would fall prey to predators; sharing wealth – pooling resources; sharing knowledge and skills – provision of services; and for psychological development and good mental health – basic human company, to name but a few.
Religions understood this concept from the earliest times. Buddhists form a Sangha to study and follow the Dharma – teachings of the Buddha, while other religions set up monasteries and convents. Whether religious or secular the idea is the same – like minded people living together for mutual support.
Ironically for someone who isn’t a member of any formal group I lament the loss of community in the 21st century ‘developed’ world. When I was growing up in working class Dublin in the 1960s the notion of being neighbourly – we could name every member of every family within sight of our front door and beyond – was a given and having extra of anything meant an automatic urge to share. We didn’t have alarms because we had each other – the valley of the squinting windows was our Neighbourhood Watch – and took spare keys from neighbours to watch their homes when they were away. We minded each others children and fed every child present regardless of who they were or where they came from and that was in a time and place when every penny counted. Is this simply nostalgia? Probably to some extent, because I am after all one of those people who almost never ask for a favour and rush to pay it back if I do. In reality it was my generation that began to ‘bowl alone’ in the first place. However, when I visited www.bettertogether.org and read their list of 150 things you can do to build social capital, I ticked off a considerable list of things that would have been commonplace in the world in which I grew up, but is absent and even frowned upon in the world in which my grandchildren will be raised. Ironically in an age when communication is almost constant – twitter, messaging and a phone in your pocket – the need for physical gathering has diminished and the fabric of community has become paler and weaker.