Community and Cultural Evolution — A conversation

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:


David: (A social worker):  I chose community as my topic. I don’t have much community in my life these days, and I don’t think many people do. This feels like a big loss.

CJ: Great topic.

David:  Its funny how I got to the question of community. I started out looking at the problem of gangs. But I realized that part of what attracted me to the topic of gangs was that I’m a bit envious of them. At some level, I wish I had a gang (laughter in the room). I know the gang problem has to do with much more than just community, but I went with community because the topic caught me by surprise. I feel real concern about the very small role community plays in most people’s lives these days. I see considerable danger when I project what we have today into the future. People need a sense of community.

CJ:  I think you’ve hit on an important concern—more important than we might at first realize. I often ask people in groups I’m working with where in their lives they feel most rich and where they feel most impoverished. A felt lack of community consistently tops the impoverished list, and I think for good reason. Social evolution has realized no greater achievement than the liberation of the individual, but we’ve paid a price. The limited sense of belonging many people feel today not only isolates, it can leave us without any sense of collective purpose. Or personal purpose—meaning has little meaning separate from shared experience.

David:   I think we need to do a lot more to support community. Community used to be a part of everyone’s life. Most of us grew up in neighborhoods. Before that people lived in villages and before that tribes. I don’t think we can have healthy lives without it.

CJ:  I very much agree. But we need to be careful in how we approach the question of community—particularly when we make comparisons with what we’ve known before. We can look to the past to appreciate community’s value. But we really can’t use past images to guide us. When we do, we become vulnerable to advocating outcomes that we not only can’t achieve, but that we would not want to achieve.

David:  Can you be more specific?

CJ: It is important to recognize how community’s definition has changed over time—and the unique challenges it presents in today’s world.  We easily assume that community is just community. But what gives relationship the experience we call community has evolved through history—and continues to evolve. We can learn from the past, but we don’t really have the option of returning to it.

For example, if our ideal for community is the close-knit neighborhoods of our great-grandparents’ days, we’ve got real problems. Such community was a product not just of place and proximity, but also of close blood bonds and narrowly restrictive codes of appropriate behavior. Even if we could return to such times, it is very unlikely we would be happy there. We would feel our freedom and individuality intolerably stifled.

The bind would be even more pronounced if we tried to recreate tribal reality.  The felt sense of community in tribal societies is even stronger—at least if we define community as connectedness. But the flip side of this is also the case. Even less room exists for difference. To a profound degree, people in tribal societies have identity, indeed existence, only as part of the tribe.

David:  Do you think we have less need for community today?

CJ: We do if we define community only in terms of connectedness. But it is not that simple. Better, the feeling we call community derives from a timely balance between connectedness and separateness. If the amount of closeness is too great, we don’t feel community at all, we feel suffocation. We see the same thing in relationships of all kinds. Relationship feels most vital not when difference disappears, but when the balance between closeness and separateness is just right.

History describes an evolving dialogue between connection and distinction. Early on, with tribal societies, social bonds were paramount and individual differences secondary. Over time, this relationship has gradually reversed, reaching an opposite in today’s world where distinct identity receives much the greater emphasis. What has made community community has evolved in parallel with these changes.

So in one sense we do have less need for community. But in another, the need is no less great. And given the degree of isolation so many people today feel, addressing that need assumes special importance. What we need to be doing is looking for the particular kinds of relationships that, in the context of today’s realities, are capable of fulfilling that need. That might seem like splitting hairs, but it is an essential distinction if our concern is the future of community.

David:   I’m still confused. That progression toward ever-greater individuality would seem to point toward community—of any kind—becoming a thing of the past. It really doesn’t give much hope. If that is where things are going, my longing for community would just be immaturity, some futile desire to return to mother (chuckles in the room).

CJ:  We are likely seeing the last vestiges of traditional community. Community is not entirely gone. It survives in many locales. And it thrives in mass culture—the TV our modern equivalent of the communal campfire (a meager remnant of belonging but belonging nonetheless).

But what lies ahead is likely more interesting than just the disappearance of community. The concept of Cultural Maturity very much affirms your call to support healthy communities. It simply reminds us that we have to find this by looking ahead rather than to what has been. Something is being lost, but it is our past relationship to community, not community itself. Certainly the pendulum with regard to community seems to be swinging back. At least in the industrialized world, people today are more likely to express a hunger for community than a desire for greater individuality. As it turns out we don’t have to choose.

David:  Because?

CJ:  Cultural Maturity proposes that successful community in the future will involve both the continued evolution of individuality and a renewed connectedness. This may seem a paradox, but it is an apparent contradiction we encounter in other places. The greater differentiation required by love today—that move beyond two-haves-makes-a-whole relating—makes us more distinct but also capable of deeper intimacy. In a similar way, if the notion of Cultural Maturity is accurate, we should observe both greater individuality and greater community in the future—each essential to the realization of the other.

A good way to understand this is to appreciate how past bonds of community, like those of love and national allegiance, have tended to be polar—mythologized, idealized.  (We see faint remnants in sports rivalries and heated debates at neighborhood meetings.)  At least a bit, we’ve seen our own people as special—and often more than just special, as in some sense chosen. In the same sense that other kinds of personal and social engagement today require more Whole-Person ways of relating, increasingly it is so for community—at least community that adds significantly to our lives.

David:  What exactly does community in the new sense you are suggesting look like?

CJ:   It will be different for different people and different for the same people at different times. A key characteristic of future community should be the diverse and evolving ways we fulfill community needs. But we can identify common themes. For example, community in times ahead will necessarily require greater awareness and intentionality, a new willingness to take responsibility for both the fact of community and its forms. In times past, community was a given, something handed to us. We were born into it.  In the future, we will have community only to the degree we choose to make it a priority and work to create it.

David: I get that.

CJ:  It will also require greater comfort with diversity and difference. Community bonds of times past were most always with people very similar to us. In the future this will change. Some of our most treasured bonds will be with people who before may have lived in very different worlds. Indeed such differences may often provide the impetus for connection.

David:  I like that.

CJ:   For many people, the most challenging new ingredient will be the need for greater acceptance of change. The ways people fill their needs for community over the course of their lives will commonly be more fluid than in times past. This is not to say that long-term commitment to place and particular people won’t be important. Indeed, many people will choose to have that role increase—part of the motivation for rethinking community is recognizing the price we have paid for modern mobility and the frenetic pace of modern life. But the option of change will certainly be more a part of the equation.

David:  That fits.

CJ:  Change also comes into the equation another way. Successful community will require appreciation for what we’ve just been talking about—how, over time, community’s definition has changed and some of the changes likely still ahead. At multiple levels, change and community must less and less seem opposites.

David:  I think I’ve already been working some on community in this new sense. I just hadn’t called it that.

CJ:  Say more.

David:  It is a mix of things. For example, I’ve lately been putting more energy into relationships at work. I’ve always thought of the work world and community as distinct—even opposite. In fact work is where I fulfill a lot of my community needs. I think we have to find work meaningful if it is to address community needs at all deeply. But, fortunately I work for a good company.

Also, I’ve made greater effort to keep in touch with old friends. I meet several friends for lunch every couple of months—we have our regular place we go. That might not seem like much to most people. But it works for me. I really value these connections.  There is also what has become possible with the Internet. Before, I always promised friends I’d write letters—but rarely did.  E-mail is easier. And sometimes just surfing on the web helps me feel more connected. Social networking sites don’t do that much for me, but they obviously work for some people.

CJ: The great attraction of social networking today supports the importance of your community question. What we see also reflects how distanced we can be from community in any deep sense.  I find that people can find human connection in hearing what someone they don’t actually know is having for lunch a bit boggling. But I trust that future manifestations of socially networking will, over time, come to effectively address deeper needs.

David: That makes sense.

CJ:  If you set aside romanticized images of community and look at what today actually gives you a feeling of community, how are you doing?

David: Things still feel impoverished. But I think I better understand what I need to do.  Recognizing that a lot is new in how we need to think about community is helpful. In a funny way it helps me feel less alone. We may not be very good at making community in the new ways required today, but at least we are all not very good at it together (laughter).



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