We need community

November 29, 2020

The holidays can be stressful, but there’s something beautiful to spending time with family. People groan at Aunt Helen’s questions or Tio Carlos insisting on watching football, but that’s part of it. Being part of a group, even if you don't like everyone in it, is to be human.

Modern life has diverged from our original way of living

Humans have existed for quite a long time. About 200 thousand years ago Homo Sapiens emerged, and before that Homo Erectus wasn’t much different from us. Homo Erectus used tools and lived in small tribes going back 2 million plus years. We created civilization about 10,000 years ago. We invented this modern life in the last hundred years, a drop in the ocean of our evolutionary timeline.

Two of the biggest shifts in this last century are

1. the rise of the nuclear family and

2. mass movement to cities.

The concept of the nuclear family is new. Not that long ago people lived with extended family, or very close to them. Today we couldn’t imagine living with our mother-in-law or cousins. The upside was more hands to help in raising small children, and more people to help each other in business. We’ve traded a support network and extra love for more autonomy.

When you look at where we live, there’s been another massive shift. Most people now live in cities or in suburbs near big cities. While cities offer immense benefits, there are drawbacks, like a loss of community. It’s easy to be lonely while surrounded by millions of people.

But that's not how it used to be. Cities aren’t new, but which city we live in is a new phenomenon. We used to move to cities because that’s where our extended family was, or our ethnic group. Think Jews leaving Europe and moving to New York City. Now we move to cities based on our careers or for personal ideological reasons. I know this is a good thing for financial mobility and for minority groups like LGBT, but we’re missing something.

When you couple the two recent phenomena together it’s particularly startling. We’re striking out on our own or only with our nuclear family to cities where we have no community, or  brethren.

Extended families, and tribes have members that didn’t agree with each other, but they were still a group. They had to learn to come together for the good of the community. They had to put their differences aside and break-bread together. Now we all live in a city that we agree with everyone else on everything, and we unfollow the family member that’s voiced support for the wrong candidate. We've lost the ability to come together and put aside differences.

I’m not arguing to return to agrarian society with our cousins, but we can mitigate some of the downsides of modern life.

How to mitigate modern life's impact on community

During the pandemic, open your pod a bit.

My children are in preschool, and technically all the other preschool kids, and their parents are in our pod whether we hang out with them or not. Hang out with the people that are already kinda in your pod, but that you haven’t been hanging out with. Additionally, open your pod a bit more, bring your neighbor into your pod.  

Call your mom.

Make an effort to call your parents, your siblings, even cousins, even if they did vote for the other guy. They’re still family, they’re still human, they’re still part of your tribe. Don’t retreat into your bubble. Hear them out. It’s possible you might learn something, or you agree to disagree, and agree on the love you have for each other. Life isn’t all about politics and political identity.

Post pandemic, find a new community.

I’m an atheist, but before the pandemic my wife and I were going to synagogue every Saturday to connect deeper with the local Jewish community. You don’t have to believe in god to enjoy the benefits of community (though it’s easier to be an open atheist Jew than any other western religion).

Predictions for the future

So what happens next? What happens after the pandemic, and in the next 20 years? I don’t know, but the current model isn’t sustainable. We didn’t evolve to live this way, isolated amongst millions of people. We may see:

  • Extended families living in near each other again
  • Communal living movements rise up again, like the hippies or kibbutzim, but less radical
  • Non-religious communities rise to take the place that church has held as the last non-familial community for many

We humans need community, and we're not getting enough of it these days, even before the pandemic. I’ll explore more in future posts.
In the meantime, if you are spending the holidays with people you don't love, remember it's an ancient tradition to break bread with tribesmen you don’t agree with.

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