By Eileen Forrestal
Let’s start with a dictionary definition: (somewhat vague and possibly outdated)
a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common; the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.
I think we need to upgrade what “community” means in today’s world.
Leaving aside any ‘spiritual’ realm, human beings are now required to live in two co-existing and rapidly changing worlds – a ‘real’ world and a ‘virtual’ or ‘technological / technologically enhanced’ world. For many of us the virtual world is as real, or even more real, than the real world, and we now face an evolutionary challenge. Human ‘enhancement’ combined with Artificial Intelligence rapidly outstrips Homo Sapiens intelligence as we play in a new field of Cyborg Anthropology!!
Poor old Homo Sapiens still experiences feelings and emotional upsets, and while this ‘emotional intelligence’ is familiar and a developmental response to, and requirement for the intricacies of emotional relationships within intimate communities, it may not be required in a cyber community or a globalised world of smart homes, autonomous cars, on line shopping and internet dating.
For now, our challenge is to find out how to comfortably exist and co-exist in / with both worlds, as we spend as much or more time and resources with, and in, our on- line, as our offline, communities. Do we shun the ‘challenge’ of being visible in a local community for the relative ease, and invisibility, in cyber space? Is it easier to hide out in space? Do we sacrifice the benefits of connection in our local community for the appearance (pretence) of belonging to a ‘global community’. Is it admiration (and likes) we seek now, more than true acceptance?
What of the dark web? Secret societies? Prison? Drug cartels? honour among thieves? Subversives? These are all ‘successful communities’ attracting people with similar interests and shared values.
What is attractive and available in one (on line) that is not available in the other and how can we have the best of both worlds?
Some would like to shun the digital / on-line / virtual world altogether but this is becoming increasingly difficult as our entire experience of the world is now shaped by, and enmeshed in, the interconnected Internet of Things. We can’t not swim in the water we are swimming in. We are attached to our smartphones and fast Netflix download speeds and lots of likes on our posts. We ‘join’ groups and communities without the slightest hesitation – we can delete them later – …. in fact, we are so subconsciously ‘addicted’ to our modern playthings, and the illusion of control – we spend countless hours getting our fix … and experience unprecedented upset and frustration when our ‘supply’ is threatened. The two-year-old temper tantrum is so easily provoked… at every age! Gimme what I want … Now!!! No one tells ME what to do!!
Perhaps our new ‘toy’ distracts us from experiencing our quiet (unquiet) ‘disconnected’ moments – when we are ‘alone’ …with ‘nothing to do’ … when those eternal existential questions might arise: Why am I here? What am I doing? Where am I going? What’s it all for? Where do I belong? When it is clear we are not , in that moment, in community. When we are present to the ‘aloneness’ of our human condition.
We know we can’t go back to the familiar, comfortable, ‘safe’ past .. ‘the good old days’ … the safe familiar communities of our childhoods, the illusion of ‘happy families,’ and helpful neighbours. Meithil. In our adult moments, as we creep towards death, the unknown, uncertain future beckons, and seems too terrifying to contemplate trying to navigate it alone …
What do we do ? We do what we have always done … we seek others like ourselves, with the same angst, the shared uncertainty… safety in numbers… we can face the future together. We have always survived in community, so we seek refuge there. It may not be a church but in the same way it will save us.
So, without our ‘church’, what community do we align with – we have a myriad of choices …..
What’s the ‘best’ one?
Who can we trust?
Like religion, we seek the ‘right’ one. We may have already rejected ‘the wrong one’ the one we knew, the one that betrayed us. We check out who’s already there… are they the kind of people we want to be associated with ? Do we share their values and beliefs? Will we be safe here?
True ‘community’ requires that people trust and care for one another. This then requires ‘evidence’ that the community can be trusted … and this takes time. It takes time to build community. Putting people together with shared goals, purpose, attitudes and interests such as project teams, companies, political movements, suburban housing estates; high rise flats; these maybe groups of people that care about the same goal, but they are not necessarily ‘communities’.
I particularly like to go to the origin of a word – to break it down into its components.
Co=company / with : together : joint : jointly; one that is associated in an action with another : fellow : partner
Old Irish com – with
Munity =: a privilege that is granted
Is community a privilege? Who grants it? And do we risk taking it for granted ? What if it’s a cover for other privileges?
We have all have our origins in some community – our family, our ancestors, our neighbourhood, our villages and towns, our nation, places where we are known and accepted.
From small rural communities, to complex urban communities, from special interest communities, to global communities, from communities within communities, we pass seamlessly across invisible boundaries … the boundary only becoming ‘visible’ from the other side. Now you are ‘in’ or ‘out’. Now you have a label: ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them’. Now you belong or you don’t’. Who made the decision? What happened? What unwritten ‘law’ did you break? Included or rejected? Rewarded or punished?
The relentless migration to cities has altered the face and feel of community. People naturally want to congregate …and gravitate towards a community that feels familiar, where they feel safe, where they will be accepted, where they can belong. Cities build ‘community centres’ where groups can meet but these do not necessarily provide a foundation for strong, connected or resilient communities. ‘Members’ come and go, staying as long as they feel welcome, accepted, valued and can participate in meaningful activities, or until they become bored or are made to feel unwelcome, rejected and excluded.
Perhaps the strength and resilience of a community is determined by its need to defend itself against a common ‘enemy’ – a perceived threat to its integrity or beliefs – or a shared desire or challenge to which it needs to rise, that requires collaboration. This happens fast when disaster strikes; when time is of the essence and lives are at stake, to save crops from weather disaster, or to save property from fire and flood. People therefore seek refuge in community – and thus have a responsibility to sustain the health and wellbeing of that community – they are not passive bystanders – they have a vested interest. Now trust is essential, that they share concerns and have a mutual desire to benefit the greater good – or protect an even greater evil!!
Intuitively, we know cannot survive outside of community. Conversely, we discover that we thrive in a community that we trust to make our own. To lose a limb is described as a ‘dismemberment. The body will survive the loss of an arm. An arm will not survive an amputation. Full self-expression and self-actualisation depends on being a ‘member’ of the community, like the arm contributes to the full function of the the body, and the body is effective and powerful with the unrestricted movements of the arm. The body does not need the arm as much as the arm needs the body, but the contribution of the arm is necessary for full power of the body. The integrity of the community depends on the contribution of each of the members contributing to the strength of the whole. Community thrives with active, participating ‘members’, each pulling their own weight, and helping other members to pull theirs. Even homeless alcoholics will congregate and form tight communities, to protect them against a common enemy, sobriety!
Our online communities, while seeming to provide a solution to our existential loneliness, are also exacerbating the ‘problem’ – the problem being we seem to want to belong ‘somewhere else’, with that community of ‘like-minded people’ ‘over there’, ‘with those people’, who ‘understand me’, and not over here, with these people, the people ‘we know’. These are the people we can actually ‘be with’, sit with, spend time with, listen to, get to know, share a cup of coffee with, build relationships with; people within arm’s reach, people we can comfort and support and lend a helping hand to … and to be comforted and supported by in return. But people are dangerous. They are unpredictable They misunderstand. They judge. Isn’t it less threatening to stay this side of the screen?
Proximity is our access to belonging. This is our access to connection – to meet, greet, be with and relate. We might be surprised what we discover about the people in our lives, when we actually engage with them, close up, authentically, without any preconceived judgements, assumptions, biases or other barriers.
Ah, but who do we to trust? Who do we feel we can be ‘authentic’ with? How do we decide? Do we ‘trust’ those already in a ‘trusted’ community? What comes first – the community already there or the trust we bring? We are all looking to find a community that we can trust … and everywhere we look we have evidence that we cannot trust – our family let us down, our teachers, our priests, our Government, .. our Institutions … our Banks. … and when we look closely, we even let down ourselves. We cannot trust ourselves not to lie to get ourselves of the hook now and again. Santa Claus isn’t real … and yet we can’t bear to let him go.
The world is seeking authenticity. Everyone now wants the ‘story’ of your life, so we know who you are, and then we can trust you?? Can we?
Yes, human beings are flawed. And flawed human beings are everywhere.
How can flawed human beings build trusted communities?
Only by accepting we are all flawed human beings and as such we need to be accepted by other flawed human beings in a community where we support each other in our frailties …
I belong to the Irish community – when I am abroad I believe I can trust another Irish person to help me if I am in trouble. Would I look for his help when I am at home?? Would I automatically consign him to ‘some other community – not mine’. Maybe he’s from Cork!
I belong to the Medical community. I feel privileged. When I am a patient, I quickly become part of the patient community … and need help. Can I trust the Medical Profession to treat me as a colleague … or a patient? Is there a difference?
I belong to an online Global Entrepreneur community … and we meet occasionally. I do not expect them to come to my aid when I am in trouble. Yes, I access their knowledge and services and support to enhance my own entrepreneurial endeavours but this is not where I go when I am in trouble.
I appear in many on line and off line communities … some I choose them, some by default. I have something ‘in common’ with all of them – a shared experience, a shared conversation. There are some Communities I will never belong to … I’m not black, I’m not blind, deaf or disabled, I’m not gay, I’m not a golfer or an Olympic athlete, I’m not an alcoholic, and yet I fully acknowledge, accept and appreciate these communities, and the support they provide for their members. I am not upset because I don’t belong. I have no experience of being rejected.
These intimate communities in which we want to be known and valued for who we are, are where important relationships can be nurtured and strengthened, with people who share our worldview, and with whom we can share our problems, and celebrate our good news. The people who matter are those who ‘see us’ as we are, in our daily lives, exposed, unprotected by a ‘screen’, and accept us, flaws and all. The people we can hug, and shake hands with, and smile with, and touch, and truly connect with – immediately, with body language, no place to hide. Our communities are where we have permission to ‘be ourselves’.
Communities that provide this space fulfil a deep human need that mere ‘gatherings’ cannot. They foster a spirit of reliable, deepening and ongoing relationships, to build trusted friendships, to get to know each other on a deeper, personal level, safe to let ourselves be seen, to care, to learn from each other, to act collectively for the benefit of all. When this trust is established, so much more of the communities collective potential can be fulfilled, in the form of personal support, learning, collaboration, contribution and cooperation. Thus community is a mutually beneficial relationship where everyone in the community thrives. When the focus shifts from ‘me’ to ‘we’ – from suspicion to trust, from competition to co-operation, this is the catalyst for powerful communities. Communities are for the benefit of the collective and depend on the collective for this benefit.
The communities we really fear rejection by, are our family, our friends, our neighbours, and any group to which we believe we belong and where we can make, and have made, a valuable contribution. When that contribution has been denied, misconstrued, deemed as malicious or damaging, the punishment is severe – expulsion. Being misunderstood or judged unfairly feeds a fundamental fear of being rejected by the trusted community, but once expelled the retribution is fierce. Compassion and forgiveness are withheld … forever. There may be no going back.
The safety, and danger, in online communities is we can pretend to be something were not, for longer. We may never be exposed. We can simply be a passive consumer vs an active participant or co-creator. This is our default mode, a much safer choice. We can remain hidden, voyeurs, watching and waiting, not sure who else is lurking in the shadows … … we first need to sniff it out and see if this environment will make us feel safe and if we fit in. Co-creation and participation is a risk: we might offend or alienate people with our ideas and opinions; we might break rules; we might be misunderstood and face criticism; we might expose ourselves. It seems smarter to start out by observing and seeing what’s happening …. And pretending we belong. But where is our ‘skin in the game’? Where is the accountability? What are we responsible for? Are all on line communities by their very nature, inauthentic and places to hide our flaws?
What is the future for community in this globalised high tech ‘artificially real’ world we are creating? How will we define ‘our’? How will we define community? Will it be off-line or on-line? Will we wait to be invited or will we request to join? Will there be acceptance criteria or terms and conditions? Will there be rules we cannot break? Will there be a joining fee? How will we define the health of the community? How will we know we can trust it? How will we prove we are trustworthy? Will there be an entrance exam? Will we still revert to ‘us and them’, ‘over here vs over there’; this community is better than that community; this community is ‘right’ and that community is ‘wrong’; trust us, don’t trust them; are we doomed to be forever trapped in our evolutionary ‘biology’ that keeps us fighting for survival, craving community but too scared (or unwilling) to be seen as vulnerable and needing what it provides.
Who can you trust? Where do we learn to trust? Is it wise?
The power of community, lies in the collective identity: that the group thinks of itself as a group that belongs together and that the individual members trust each other more than the average – even the people who have never met before. Yes, we can trust total strangers!!! Trust is the basis of the collective, and that trust can be betrayed as in any collective of human beings …… so when that trust is broken, the community fractures. In fact we feel we can trust strangers more than we can trust those we love, as the fear of betrayal is not so great. Who cares if a stranger betrays us … how could we have known? But what if we are betrayed by a loved one, ‘one of our own’? How could we not have known? How foolish do we appear? And in front of our community …. the shame .. it’s unforgiveable … isn’t it? And expulsion? Public humiliation? Who could bear it? On line anonymity in multiple ‘faceless’ communities is definitely the safer option.
Humanity, as a community of human beings, as we know it, is now itself perhaps under threat – but the enemy is ‘invisible’, as, like the Trojan Horse, we have invited him unrecognised into our midst and it is eating away at our community from the inside. We are being ‘disconnected’ by the very ‘screens’ that claim to connect us, The 5G technology that promises to ‘connect’ us faster and further to our family and friends, may well be ‘disconnecting’ our neurons from one another. As we peer into our screens, hour after hour, in an effort to connect our on line personas with other online personas, we are becoming even more disconnected from ourselves, let alone from our community. The virtual world IS just that, virtual. We are screened from the reality by the very screen we are watching ‘reality’ through, enchanted by the shiny new objects, (and likes – our little Dopamine hits) and blinded to consequences of this ‘enemy’ in our midst – the wolf in sheep’s clothing ….Perhaps our time is done … …. Homo Deus here we come. The ‘enhanced human’ may have no more need of community, than the car has need for a blacksmith.
We live in interesting times.