Raise your hand if you feel like you have “community” in your life? If you raised your hand, consider yourself lucky. Research cited by Howard Cutler and The Dalai Lama in the book “The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World,” found that twenty five percent of Americans report they have no close friends. The researchers found that the nature of connection is shifting away from community-based connection to reliance on family members as the primary source of social connection. Other studies have linked loneliness to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow, as well as strong association with early death and cognitive decline. This research implies that there are a lot of lonely people wandering around the planet and that our health suffers as a result. I propose the low-cost, fun-to-do strategy of getting to know your neighbors and building some good old fashioned community. Creating a proverbial village, if you will.
I understand the loneliness phenomenon. When I became a mom, most things in my life changed; my self-concept, my relationship to my career and work, how I spent my time, and many of my relationships were different. This made for some lonely times. Not only did I need physical support to help squeeze in a nap and get the laundry done, but I also needed the space to talk through the changes that I was experiencing as a new mom and member of a three person family. During this time we we're fortunate to have incredible support from family and friends. We also, serendipitously, stumbled into a new neighborhood full of young families and caring people and, voila, something supremely nourishing has grown in our lives- community!
The old adage that it takes a village is true!
The word community has both physical and social implications:
1. Physical definition- "A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common."
2. Social definition- "A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals."
I know that I need community and here is why:
Making a connection by talking, in person, allows me to understand my own feelings better and empathize with others. Parenting is a perfect example: Me, “Why is my three year old hitting me instead of using his words? I am NOT a punching bag!!” My neighbor, “My son does that too. I watch for the behavior that leads up to it and try some belly breathing before he starts hitting.” Me, “Hmmm, maybe I’ll try that.” These interactions with fellow parents in the neighborhood have been the source of far more useful parenting advice than any of the books that I’ve read so far. Partly because they are contextual (indices in parenting books are rare) but mostly because of the empathy exchange that happens; "We’ve all been there," "You’ll get through it," "Call me if you need a break and bring your kiddo over." This is pure community gold!!
I get lonely. Research shows that loneliness is even worse for our health than obesity and building community is an easy low-cost fix.
Doing something together feels important. When our neighborhood built our community chicken coop it felt like we had a shared sense of purpose and that we were making a commitment to each other. This group action has provided some obvious benefits like fresh eggs, great compost and waste diversion but it’s also connected us on a deeper level. I know when my neighbors are out of town or under the weather, we share decision making and resources as well as responsibility for chicken crises like skunk and bear attacks. Well mostly. There are a couple of neighbors in the group who are much more skilled at chicken carcass removal, skunk trapping and bear wrangling than I. And for that, I am grateful.
My community helps alleviate fear and makes me feel safe. The world feels crazy to me right now. I’m sure that this has been said many times in history but when we are talking about arming teachers with guns in our schools and the earth's poles are seeing temperatures consistently 40 degrees above average, it scares me. In my neighborhood I know that there are people looking out for our family. I know the parenting and moral philosophies of my neighbors and I feel safe that our kids will have good parental guide-rails as they grow up together. If there is a wildfire or mudslide, I know where to get information and who can help. I know that we’ve got “eyes on the street” and that we are looking out for each other and that is a comfort.
How to build it
I tend to think of community in terms of physical spaces because of my studies in urban planning. Since moving into our neighborhood, I’ve come to appreciate the social piece of community. Now I intimately understand that we need both the physical and the social parts to truly create "community." Here are some things I've learned from our 'hood about building community:
Step one- knock on your neighbor's door. Maybe even bring over some cookies. Who knows, you could meet your new best friend.
Create gathering spaces. Community gardens, a grange, a coffee shop, a school playground or cafeteria can all become "places" in a community. Since community is about connecting with others, we need a place to do it. The feeling of a place is important so I try to notice the little details of places that make me feel good. Is there vegetation? What does the view look like? Is it a big space or a small space? Is there art or music or food? Can I talk to friends while our kids play there? Public art, biophillic design, which replicates patterns from nature in constructed environments, and spaces that are used by different types of people are examples of seemingly invisible forces at work in a place that can cause us to have an emotional reaction.
Be responsible to each other. It’s one thing to know your neighbor’s name but it’s a community when you trust them to take care of your cat or can call in the middle of the night for Tylenol when your baby has a fever of 104. This is a reciprocal responsibility. You take out their garbage when they are out of town and call them if there are lights on in their house when you don’t think they are home. If you're curious about your own inclinations and connection to humanity, take this quiz from the Greater Good Science Center.
Work on something together. This could be the gathering space I mentioned above or it could be giving input as a group to a city plan for your neighborhood. Us humans, especially when we live in the same physical area, tend to have shared concerns like our community chicken coop, a desire to see better housing options in the neighborhood, or a neighbor that needs our care. This goes back to being responsible to each other because we acknowledge that our fates (property values, crime rates, and kids getting into trouble) are intertwined and we will all benefit by working together to improve our place and care for each other.
Share resources. Sharing resources could mean borrowing your neighbor’s lawn mower or even investing in one between a group of neighbors. Sharing saves money, minimizes environmental impacts and it creates connection. Sharing resources can also mean knowing who has what skills and assets that would be needed in emergencies- who has medical skills and supplies, back up solar power, knows how to sew or hunt?
All of these things can make a community more resilient. Examples such as the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave where incidents of death were much lower in a neighborhood with greater social cohesion than those neighborhoods without "community," show us that people pull together in troubled times. We do better when we look out for each other. We are healthier when we are connected to one another. We set good examples for our kids when we model community and civic engagement. And the benefits go on and on...So consider taking stock of your village.
How do you define your community? What you can do to bring others into it? What steps could you take to build it?
“The size of the place that one becomes a member of is limited only by the size of one’s heart.”- Gary Snyder
Thank you to our village!!!
Piper Lang, Finn Walter, and Finn Murphy hanging out with Happy the Change Maker