Our world has experienced a serious decline in community. Isolation is not good for the human mind or soul, but more and more people seem to be suffering from a lack of friendship and companionship. Even from the beginning of time, God understood that it was important for man to have a companion, so He created Eve. She was found to be a suitable mate for Adam. Certainly this is shown to be God’s design for marriage, but it also emphasizes the more general human need for community. We want other people to be with us in this journey that we call life. By ourselves, we are not experiencing all that life would have for us.
We then have to wonder how we fix this problem. It is pretty easy for me and a lot of other people to diagnose the fact that our culture is suffering from a lack of engagement and the lack of friendship. It is not like I am some random voice out here in the wilderness on a relatively unknown website saying something that nobody else knows. This is pretty popular level stuff I’m talking about here. I have read so many articles talking about isolation and the decline of community. If I am right then, we somehow lack the will to solve this problem. After all, if we know the problem, perhaps there is something that is preventing us from trying to actually solve it.
That seems contradictory though. After all, as a general rule, people are problem solvers. When we find the problem, we ideally like to make it better. What I am suggesting here is that somehow we are going against our nature to avoid solving this problem even though we realize it is a problem and said that we do not like our decline in community. That is the foundational problem I think we have to talk about first because until we realize why we won’t or don’t address the problem, there is not a whole lot of sense in talking about the potential solutions we could have to rebuild community.
First it is important to recognize the fact that I can have almost anything I want delivered to my living room. I do not need to go to the movie theater; I have more videos and movies than I could ever watch at my fingertips for a very low cost. I don’t even need to go to the store because I can buy everything on Amazon, including my groceries. There are a variety of careers I can pursue right from the comfort of my own home. I really don’t need to go and do anything outside my house. Sometimes I think that if we are not forced to do something, our desire to do anything simply falls apart.
Part of me would like to think about if people had the added convenience of not having to go grocery shopping for example, they would then reinvest that time to do something maybe more enjoyable but still social. For example, instead of spending an hour in the store, you could go for a walk with a friend or go play a game of pickup basketball. We just don’t necessarily reinvest our time well. Instead, we say that our, so we return to our houses and do nothing. We watch Netflix. We play a videogame. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Netflix or videogames are absolutely evil and must be removed from the world. Rather, I am just trying to emphasize the point that often times what we say will save us time to do better things, we often times spend doing things that actually remove us from community further.
However, notice what is happened as part of this transition. I have gone from doing something social to doing something individual. Not that grocery shopping is perhaps the most social occasion of all time, but it is still an opportunity to see other people, interact with other people, maybe run into a friend and chat for a few minutes, or at the very least have to smile and nod as you walk by people. We have made our lives so easy, but often times we do not use the time for something more valuable in terms of our communal health. Instead, what we tend to do is withdraw into individual isolation. That is a temptation for sure.
Second, there are plenty of other ways for us to try to fulfill this without actually building community. Online community tries. I am a member of a variety of different types of online community, and I have met some wonderful people that way. However, I would be deceiving myself if I thought that being friends online was identical to being friends in person. There is something fundamentally different about having in person relationships with other people. Hearing voices, interpreting body language and comprehending expression are much different than reading words on a screen. You probably know a lot of things about me if you read this website regularly, but if you have not met me in person, there is a lot that you probably will not know about me. This is not to say that friendships cannot begin and even thrive online, but it is a challenge to build a community without physical proximity.
Because online community tries to fill in this gap, sometimes we think we have authentic community when we may not. We have put in a substitute, but it is not an entirely satisfactory substitute. As a result, we think that community in the end of itself is only as good as its shadow. That is much, much different. If we think that real communities can only be as good as online communities, except for extraordinarily rare circumstances where online communities have done well, we are going to underestimate the power of real community. Therefore, we may not evaluate community as nearly as important as we should because we think that it can only be as powerful as its shadow.
We can then put together these two symptoms. We don’t have to go out in public often at the same time as we feel like we can fulfill our need for community from our laptops. We are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to see other people at the same time as we think that we are interacting with people as often as we should to fulfill our natural human desires. You can see how this is a recipe for dissatisfaction. After all, it is incredibly frustrating to want something, think that we have found it and ultimately discover that what we have found is not what we thought it was going to be.
That tells me there are a few potential options with how to deal with this problem. We can obviously make conscious steps to do things in public. We can actually interact with people even when we don’t have to. Churches do this really well. There are churches you can attend fully online, and you can say that you are doing church. You can learn theology from a lot of great pastors who have put amazing resources online. That said, when you go to a church in person, you are actually doing greater good for yourself and by consequence the other people there. They have that same need for community as well, so when you all come together, you are helping everyone and yourself.
The other option is to actively remember that online communities are not the same. Even though we might feel like we are fulfilling all of our social needs through our online relationships, we have to remember that there is still a need for us to interact with people in person. I write this cautiously because I have a lot of friends I have only met online, and I enjoy interacting with them greatly. I’m not saying that I am going to cut off all of those people. Rather, what I mean is that it is more important to remember that online friends cannot be my only friends. There is still an ongoing need for me to meet with people in person. Therefore, it relies on just a little bit of compartmentalization. It necessitates that we remember the difference between online and in-person.
I know these seem simple and perhaps obvious, but I think if we keep them in mind, they will help us recover a semblance of community. It will not save everything and it will not solve all of our problems, but I think these will be steps in the right direction.