Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Paradox of Community

The other day, one of our pastors spoke with nostalgia of his time as a seminary student, when he and his family lived in a Pasadena apartment ¼ the size of their former home in the Colorado suburbs. Apartment living had its stresses, but his accounts of the intense bonding experiences gave me pause.

I've never chosen to live in high-density housing when I could have my own place. True, I had roommates in college and in my single days, but what I've always wanted was a few people nearby, not the 100+ that our pastor described. Yet without "enough" of a community, there's little chance of running into someone who can speak into your life, who can help you grow in ways you need. The Proverbs teach us that "a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear" is precious, but finding the right wise person to rebuke me when I need it, and in a way I can accept it -- now there's the challenge.

So why do we Americans tend to want mansions, with big yards separating us from our nearest neighbor? It wasn't uncommon just a few decades ago to pop by a neighbor's house to borrow a cup of sugar or something, but if we can afford it (I suspect most of you reading this can) we tend to prefer to keep our pantries stocked well enough not to have to "bother" the neighbor -- even though some great conversations may have happened when popping over for that cup of sugar.

With increasing wealth -- not just individually, but as a society -- comes a decrease in the sense of community. We can afford our own cars, lawnmowers, sugar, sander, etc., so we don't talk to neighbors to borrow them or arrange carpools or whatever. For those who can afford their own houses (and many of us would if we could), we move into them, rather than living in high-density housing -- though that removes us from an important sense of community and belonging.

This led me to the observation that when people get purchasing power, they want to, as Krugman famously observed in 1996, "live in nice houses, drive cars, and eat meat" -- even though the houses will isolate them and the meat will clog their arteries. For some reason, we, as much as third-world families, tend to want what isn't good for us.

Is it just that we're victims of the fall? Also in that brilliant talk last Friday, our pastor observed that Genesis 3 describes shame's entrance into our world -- the desire to hide. In other words, do we isolate ourselves, hide ourselves from each other, because we're depraved, as John 3:20 says, "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed"?

I don't think that's all there is to it, though sin is certainly part of it. There's also a reasonable desire for some privacy, some autonomy. In this weekend's Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor described Judy Inqvist's sense of freedom after moving to Minneapolis. This fictional pastor's wife had spent decades in a small town, but now in the big city she could walk down the street without having everyone looking at her to see whether she was wearing what a pastor's wife should wear, without people looking at her and her husband to see if they were holding hands, if everything was all right between them, and so on.

One gets the sense that in a small town, there just might be too much of that community experience -- too much of a good thing, in other words.

I seem to remember reading some years ago of the tension between the opposing needs for connectedness and autonomy that we all have. At the time, I don't think I really understood the tension between those two desires, but I think I do now. So what's the answer? How do we get enough, but not too much, community?

If you find out, I hope you'll let me know.

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