“I have come to believe that without a strong sense of community human beings will wilt and begin to die. Community is the foundation of human society, the epitome of wholeness; in fact, the end of our journeying. As Parker Palmer writes: ‘Community means more than the comfort of souls. It means, and has always meant, the survival of the species.’ Without a continuing and enriching experience of community, as well as a vision of its glory to keep us moving forward, all of us eventually perish.” ― David Clark
Why is everybody so unhappy and anxious these days? I’ve written about this before: mental disorders — especially ADA (anxiety, depression, and addiction) — have become a pandemic in our society.
In this article, I’d like to focus on the question: “How did we get here?” Why is it that ADA have gotten so out of control? I’m not proposing a complete answer, but I want to suggest that one of the primary causes is the rise of social isolation, disconnection, and alienation in our world.
Another way of saying that: it’s because of the breakdown of community.
And this breakdown includes not simply a loss of human connection, but for many it also involves the loss of spiritual connection as well. We are witnessing a massive breakdown of spiritual community in our time … not just families, neighborhoods, and communities. And it’s literally killing us.
In his excellent book “The Globalization of Addiction,” researcher Bruce Alexander makes the case that this rising alienation and what he calls “social disconnection” is the primary factor that drives addiction. In fact, he calls his approach “the social dislocation theory of addiction.”
Another book I’ve found helpful is Community and Growth, by Jean Varnier. The late Varnier (died in May 2019) was the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries,for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. He was also a philosopher, Roman Catholic theologian, and writer.
“Community and Growth” was written in the 1970s and revised and published again in 1989. In it, Varnier talks about the things he’s learned over years of establishing and maintaining communities where people live and work and serve together under one roof.
How did we get here?
Of special interest here are Varnier’s reflections on the breakdown of community that he’s observed in the modern world. As I was reading, I kept on thinking, “This is it. This is why everybody is so unhappy today.” I’ve thought this and taught this as a pastor for some time now, but I think the way Varnier puts it together is so simple and helpful that I wanted to share it with you. Let me know if you agree or disagree! Here’s Varnier:
Not too long ago, people lived in homogeneous groups, composed of families which had more or less the same roots. In these groups — the tribe, the village — people spoke the same language, with the same accent, and wore the same type of clothes. They lived by the same rites and traditions, had the same code of behavior and accepted the same authority. There was a solidarity among them, that came both from their flesh and blood and from the need to co-operate to meet material needs and to defend the group from enemy attack and natural dangers. There was a unity among people of the same group which etched itself deeply on their unconscious.
Times have changed. Contemporary society is the product of the disintegration of these more or less natural or familial groupings. Nowadays, people who live in the same area are no longer part of a homogeneous group. Cities and suburbs are made up of neighbors who do not know each other — and this is becoming true in small towns and villages too. People live in a pluralistic society, and many today are the children of inter-cultural marriages.
In our cities and towns, where solidarity has disappeared, people are afraid, and so shut themselves up in their own houses, frightened of the neighbors and of intruders. Human community is no longer to be found in the market place, the neighborhood or the village. Mobility has brought about a mixture of people, religions, and philosophies.
People are now drawn toward cities and towns large and complicated enough to meet our economic desires, and toward families small and portable (and even disposable) enough to make mobility possible. Popular sociology portrays us as victims of these ‘movements’ and ‘trends’, as if the woes that accompany modernity had been forced upon us. But no. The destruction of intimate community has been at our own hands. It has corresponded to our own hierarchy of values … which stand largely in tension with the value of total and intimate community. As much as we yearn for community, we yearn even more for the social and economic prizes mobility can bring.
The breakdown of confidence in community and traditional values pushes people into a desperate form of individualism, with all the struggle that implies, in order to go up the ladder of social success and to be able to stand alone. This has brought a terrible toll on family life. The former extended family has become the nuclear family, with only one or two children and with both the man and woman working in order to obtain the maximum financial income. When the husband or wife asks too much of the other and wants the other to fulfill all their emotional needs, there is serious danger of marital breakdown.
And that is what we are witnessing today: families are breaking up. Stark individualism increases and a terrible loneliness sets in which finds a certain relief in working harder for more money and more success, and in more distractions, yet still cut off from relationship. But these ultimately push people into an even deeper loneliness. And so they fall into a vicious circle alternating between inner pain and efforts to escape it.
The “good old days”?
Of course, it’s not wise to idealize the past. True, there was a healthy sense of belonging in traditional cultures, but there were also problems. Families are not always healthy. Close-knit families and communities can be toxic,controlling, and full of drama. But still, they are almost always better than living with isolation and disconnection, as most people do today. Varnier goes on to predict that our experience of isolation and disconnection could lead people to seek out healthy community and belonging. But it could also give rise to totalitarianism and fanatical forms of power to ‘save people from chaos’ and preserve the identity of groups.
People cannot live in isolation and in such extreme individualism; everybody needs friends or companions. A certain togetherness or belonging, be it in groups of friends, in family, in clubs, in gangs, in militant groups orientated to politics and issues, in churches or in groups of all sorts, is an integral part of human nature. Isolated, we shrivel up and die.People today are crying out for authentic communities where they can share their lives with others in a common vision, where they can find support and mutual encouragement, where they can give witness to their beliefs and work for greater peace and justice in the world — even if they are also frightened of the demands of community.
One big challenge is that creating and sustaining healthy community requires deep commitment, and skillful practices that tend to the healthy use of power, and ward off dysfunction. Like a garden that needs to be tended, if we simply “let communities evolve and do their thing,” without care and intentionality, we will be disappointed.
Ignorance is not bliss
At the end of his introduction, he writes: I have come to realize how great an ignorance there is about community life. Many people seem to believe that creating a community is a matter of simply gathering together under the same roof a few people who get on reasonably well together or who are committed to the same ideal. The result can be disastrous! Community life isn’t simply created by either spontaneity or laws. It needs a certain discipline and particular forms of nourishment. Some precise conditions have to be met if this life is to deepen and grow through all the crises, tensions and ‘good times’. If these conditions are not met, every sort of deviation is possible, which will lead eventually to the breakdown of the community.
As I wrote earlier, these quotes are from the introduction to Varnier’s book … the book then goes on to prescribe principles and practices for life-giving community. This material is really helpful for people who organize and lead communities. For now, I hope this is a helpful reminder of how important such communities are. Churches, recovery and other mental health support groups, and other kinds of communities are essential for us to participate in if we’re going to stay emotionally and spiritually healthy.
Whatever it takes to find — or help create — such community is worth it.
If you’re interested in this issue, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to sign up for my free newsletter, and get updates as I write more about this.