Bowling alone… by preference

One of my favorite jokes goes like this: Two economists are looking at a fancy car.  One economist says “I’ve always wanted to buy that kind of car.”  The other economist says “no you haven’t.”

The point being that if we don’t do something that we say we want to do, sometimes we really don’t want to do it.  (Not always, of course).

I’ve been thinking about the concept of Mark Regnerus’ blog post earlier this week that mentioned how community life used to be stronger (Gemeinschaft if your playing along at home).

Countless times I’ve heard people lament that community ties aren’t as strong as they used to be, and it’s probably true.  Why it that the case?

At the heart of it, I think that we don’t have as strong a community ties because we don’t need to.  Many of the ties that we look back on fondly were there out of necessity.  There was no internet, so if people needed to communicate, they would call or stop by.  People had less money, so they would borrow more.  Women had less access to jobs, so they had more time to volunteer.  Etc…

Since about the mid-1990s, Americans have higher family income than ever in our history, and we use it, in part, to buy our independence.  We can afford two or three cars, so we don’t need to use the neighbors.  We all have our own lawn mowers and snow blowers.  Basically, we have less community because we can.  Money and health means that we can interact with whom we want when we want–convenient but not the basis of community.

I was reminded of the link between community and material wealth when the power went out this year.  Actually, it went out twice–both times for at least several days, if not more, for most people in town.  (We were without for 10 days the first time).   Immediately I started seeing a lot of friends at the local Community Center, because they had hot water and food there.  Many people in town congregating in public spaces, it felt downright 1950ish (at least as I think it should have been).  As power came on in different neighborhoods, we stopped seeing those people until the end it was just a few of us hard cases left.

There’s no reason people can’t still congregate at the community center in mass, we simply choose not to.

Me? I’m keenly aware of the inconveniences of interacting with others, and I find being alone or with close friends & family much easier.

There’s a tension here with the tenets of Christianity. Today’s ethos is do what you want with the people that you like. In contrast, the Bible has ideas of loving others, even when you don’t like them. Putting others first. Attending to the stranger.

Living in a strong community becomes more of a moral choice than a practical necessity. A commitment to relationships is inherent in Christianity, but we’re finding less and less support/ need for it.

I deeply respect the people I know who have made this commitment, and I hope that I can learn from them.

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