In Search of Community

by Jack McLean

Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)

The word community, whether designating family, town, country or particular association, suggests a sense of belonging, a familiar place, somewhere we can call home. Etymologically, the noun “community” (Lat. communis=common) is related to the verb “to commune” which means to converse intimately. Community consequently is about intimacy or familiarity. Ideally, community should provide a matrix in which each member becomes more fully human. Ecologically, community means living within the grand web of life, being links on a symbiotic “great chain of being” in which all living creatures share the planet.

In today’s highly mobile society, the sense of community has become vastly eroded. Most of us live in several communities during a lifetime, communities which may be very diverse. Some of us may never find a community that we can call our own but we keep on looking. The fortunate ones among us can remember times in our life when we experienced a fond sense of belonging to a place, a comfort and well-being, an easy familiarity with our life setting.

For highly individualistic westerners, experiencing community is a rather Johnny-come-lately yearning. We like our privacy and personal space. We like to do it our way. Western peoples once thrived on the adventuresome spirit of exploration, the pioneer ethic and the philosophy of “rugged individualism.” Democracy, capitalism and the free enterprise system would not have prospered without individual initiative. The private myth of “the American dream” was conceived and lived out by the individual.

But the public story is rather more sinister than the private dream. The excessive preoccupation with self-gratification, of working your “way to the top,” with excessive pandering to individual rights and freedoms wields a double-edged sword. The supremacy of the individual over the environment gave rise at the same time to a mind-set of despoiling and exploitation, of wanton disregard for the rights of others, and a lawlessness which has been all too romanticised in the popular imagination. The outlaw has become a kind of hero-renegade in western pop culture, someone who exerts a strange fascination and sway. Blockbuster action movies, today’s cowboy western revisited, are predicated on lawbreaking. At the same time, the line is becoming thinner between good guy and bad.

But happily we have begun to break out of the shell of individual isolation to consider the merits of communal experience and folkways other than our own. It is not only in business administration that the cooperative movement and the process of consultation and teamwork, from the grass roots level on up, is demonstrating its viability. In both the workplace and community, consultation at all levels, coupled with a strong sense of individual initiative and responsibility are proving more effective than the old authoritarian managerial style. This approach linked to unabashed company loyalty has been the key to the economic success of the Japanese corporation. Dictatorial managers, aloof and apart from the workers they direct, workers who are in large part responsible for corporate achievements, are becoming anachronistic.

To be viable, communities would share common values and belief system. They would be goal-oriented or purposeful, allow for disagreement and diversity but not at the expense of fracturing the unity of the community or destroying its moral code. Viable communities would blend both the tough and the tender elements, being nurturing and loving bodies to their members but exacting discipline and direction. They would foster creativity and not seek to force members into a uniform mould in which each and every member has been processed into an automaton, a carbon-copy stereotyped in a rigid ideological ilk. For such are the characteristics of fundamentalist religious sects, cults, tyrants and dictatorships alike.

In this era of international travel and instantaneous communication, people belonging to diverse cultures now rub shoulders every day, cultures that were once isolated in time and space and antagonistic in outlook. We are being presented with an unique opportunity of benefiting from the blending of the best of both East and West. Rather than breeding mindless prejudice, hatred and fanaticism, diversity of culture should spark curiosity and friendship and create opportunities for learning and why not? — capital ventures.

The largest vision of community would embrace the entire planet. The forces of history in the twenty-first century will undoubtedly continue to drive all nations toward increased globalization and interdependence. Cultural diversity and religious pluralism are already defining the features of the human community today. It seems likely that in tomorrow’s scenario, our own particular associations will continue to expand to embrace a thoroughly cosmopolitan vision of community, one through which every world citizen will call this beautiful blue planet home.

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