Community and the Curse of Affluence

2 men on starry night- v1
“No man is an island, entire of itself…”

John Dunne

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy-in fact, the opposite.”

Jean Vanier

Derek writes:

Post-natal blues

It was about 10 weeks after our first child had been born. We’d been warned that our lives would be turned upside down but I’d never have guessed it would feel quite like this. I was a light sleeper and although I’d never struggled with sleep I was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the nightly disruptions. Some heavy-duty sleeping pills weren’t helping. I was becoming more and more anxious. I had to have time off work. I was sleeping in the lounge with the best earplugs I could find to shut out the noise.

More than anything, though, I felt a sense of isolation. I looked with envy at the local Asian community with their large extended families and support networks. Other friends with babies who had family help on tap sounded like heaven.

I had a strong sense that something was seriously awry with the way we moderns ‘do family’. I looked back at my own childhood and realised that my sense of disorientation was at least partly due to having growing up in a close extended family. My mother had the 5 of us in quite quick succession but her siblings, parents and a host of other friends and relations were all nearby to lend a hand. If the African saying is correct that it takes a whole village to raise a child then I had the privilege to experience something like that in my Suffolk village in the 1960’s.

Throughout my life I have often tried to re-capture that experience of living in community that was so precious to my childhood. When I was single I always enjoyed living in shared accommodation. When I was able to buy a property I tried to squeeze in as many tenants as my budget could afford to create a sense of family.

Even though I am an introvert and get my energy from being alone I still feel a strong need for having people around me. To be honest, I find living with only 4 people (wife and 2 kids) rather too quiet at times!

The Great Affluence Fallacy

David Brooks in a recent article in the New York Times highlighted our innate need for community. Titled ‘The Great Affluence Fallacy’ it was a fascinating reflection on the historic relationship in 18th century North America between the European settlers and the Native Americans. What was particularly revealing was that colonials often found themselves quite happy to live in the indigenous communities and ‘go native’ but there were hardly any Indians who ever wanted to join the settlers. If an Indian child grew up in the more affluent and ‘advanced’ colonial culture and visited their Indian cousins they would almost never want to return. European women who had been captured by the Indians and handed back to their original community would invariably escape and find their way back to the tribe.

David Brooks concludes that it was the tight-knit community that the Indians enjoyed that was the deciding factor in this ‘bizarre’ behaviour. He writes of the Native Americans: ‘They would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would almost never have been alone’.

Leaping forward over 200 years modern culture has achieved unimagined affluence, technological advance and creativity. But according to the World Health Organisation people in wealthy countries are eight times more likely to suffer depression than those in poorer countries. Something is indeed awry.

The Call to Community

As a Christian it’s clear that God calls us to community. God’s essential essence is Trinitarian and hence communal. Christian life isn’t just difficult without community- it’s impossible and cannot rightly be called Christian if not lived out with others.

It also strikes me that unless the church can offer unbelievers a deep and profound sense of community the Christian gospel will never attract or hold the affections, either of those from other cultures who have always enjoyed close community or those from our own culture who feel lonely and unloved.

But how can we achieve this in a society that idealises autonomy and that drives us towards isolation? Affluence enables us to acquire more personal space but deprives us of what makes us fully human- the need for intimacy with other people (to say nothing of God). As wealth increases we get larger homes, private cars, more exotic holidays and an abundance of diverting technology all of which isolates us even more. As we need to spend more time earning and spending our money we find less time to invest in relationships. Families disintegrate. Friends drift away. Our lives are full of activity but drained of meaning or intimacy.


Moving closer

I’d like to offer some suggestions that could help us move in a different direction. I cannot claim that we Rodwells have got this sorted. It’s definitely work in progress and modern life constantly wants to wrench us back into isolation and busyness.

So here are some things we’re working on:

  1. Rediscovering hospitality. When was the last time we invited a stranger for a meal? How about inviting singles, the elderly or students to Sunday lunch? There is often no shortage of candidates at church…
  2. Creating a more ‘open’ home. As a teenager I loved having friends homes where I could just drop by at short or even no notice. If things were too stressful at home it was wonderful to have somewhere to escape. Our homes are not really ‘ours’ anyway and should always be available, within reason, to those in need. We need to move past the proverb about the Englishman’s home being his castle; instead it should be a refuge for the vulnerable and a retreat for the weary.
  3. Freeing up time. Community is impossible when we’re too busy. Is it possible to work fewer hours, free up our schedules or say no to some requests? Is it possible to simplify our lives so they revolve more around relationships? As discussed above, if most our resources goes into earning and spending money (shopping, holidays, entertainment etc.) there will only be the fag end of our time and energy left for people.
  4. Staying put. One great enemy of community is the habit of moving home regularly. Sometimes this is unavoidable but the commitment to put down roots in a particular place for the long haul provides a wonderful opportunity to invest in the lives of those around you.
  5. Voluntary dependency. Consumer culture drives us towards autonomy and fragmentation. We feel that to rely on others for anything is somehow demeaning. But community can’t exist without inter-dependence and the realisation that we need each other to truly thrive. Here are some examples:
  • The sharing economy. There are now a number of websites that allow us to borrow things like cars, spare rooms, tools, lawn mowers and such like. We may be able to afford to buy these but sharing creates dependence that then builds community. We used our neighbours lawnmower until they moved when we had to, after 5 years, get our own!
  • Asking for help. Community will flourish if we make ourselves vulnerable. We often find it easier to offer assistance but when we put down our defences and admit we can’t do something on our own then barriers can more easily be broken down. Examples might be watering of gardens when on holiday, looking after kids while we go to the doctors or just asking for a helping hand with DIY. We may be able to afford to pay for these services but we will lose the chance to grow closer to those around us.
  • Asking for prayer. When struggling with illness or difficult circumstances we must overcome our reserve and not be ashamed to ask for prayer. I wonder if there is anything that binds us closer to one another than when we humble ourselves and invite God to help us through other people. In such circumstances God promises to be present and to answer.

Living the dream

I recently found myself ruminating about the ideal place to live. I recalled a number of amazing places I’d been to on holiday. I went through all the homes I’ve lived in over my lifetime. I dreamed about going back to the fields and farmhouse of my childhood in Suffolk. But in the end I could honestly say that my ideal location is the community, the road and the home where I live right now.

Now, it’s not that the house is perfect (I’d love a bigger garden!) or that I couldn’t think of quieter streets or more bucolic settings. It’s not that the weather is ideal or the people incredibly friendly. This street, this house, is the ideal place because I feel connected to the community and the place.

The Ofsted rating of the school my kids go to is far less important than feeling part of the school community of teachers, parents and pupils. The excellence of the worship, teaching or children’s work at the local church will never meet my spiritual needs if I am not getting involved in the messiness and joys of other people lives. And having great shops, amazing council services and safe and quiet roads won’t matter a jot if I am a stranger to those who live all around me.