Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rediscovering the Art of Community

For the last few generations, mine included, the emphasis on career has pushed many of us away from the homes we grew up in and has made us nomads of sorts, chasing the next degree, the next experience, and the best job across the country and even around the world. Since graduating, I've lived in two different countries, three different cities, and in seven different homes. I moved from place to place in search of my purpose and a career I could love. 

Given my penchant for transience and adventure, I have to admit that the thought of putting down roots in some suburban community has always made me cringe. From the outside, the white-picket-fence-life seems dull and stifling, an act of settling into a rut and giving up on your dreams. The world is a vast place with so many types of people and cultures and you are choosing to wrap yourself in just one little corner of it? I'm sure the fact that my parents moved a lot - taking our family to Brazil, several places in the U.S, and to Nicaragua – has only aggravated my travel itch.

But as I get closer to turning 30 and as I experience more of single life in a big city, I find that my views on "settling" are starting to change.  Perhaps it's the nesting hormones starting to kick-in.

DC is a city full of young, single professionals. They are a very social bunch, but their tendency toward loneliness is strong – roots are shallow, self-identity is still in flux, and superficial relationships abound.

Within this environment, my three-story red-brick row house with its blue door and a warmth of community inside has been a God-given haven. The seven of us take turns cooking and often share our meals together. We throw fun parties with live bands, toilet paper each other rooms and put fake spiders in each other's beds, cry with one another when tragedy strikes, and simply enjoy the warmth and comfort of each other's presence. We still suffer the loneliness of our 20s, but it's muted and shared.  

Although in my gut I've always known this, living in this community house has reminded me that relationships are truly the good stuff of life and that people are what I should ultimately pursue, even above career.

I think one of the reasons I struggle with the idea of settling is because I know that by choosing one particular place I am excluding the possibility of knowing other places. By picking one job I cut-off the option of other jobs. By picking one group of friends I miss the chance of getting to know other interesting people (a problem I struggled with constantly in college, and therefore always felt a bit like an "in-betweener" never fully belonging to any group of friends, always one foot in and one foot out).  Moreover, by settling on one place, job, or friend group I'd also not be able to be fully me – I need diversity to draw out all the different parts of who I am and to grow.

Yet I've begun to realize that the depth of life is often best experienced by narrowing in and choosing. You cannot experience the closeness and deep love of marriage without committing to a person and similarly you can't mine the richness of a community without in some way committing yourself to it. And so as much as I've appreciated how my transient life has helped me discover myself and new ideas and diverse people, I think it may be time for the pendulum to start swinging back, not just in my own life and in the life of other 20-somethings, but as a culture at large.

Much to my surprise, it turns out that although "the United States is often portrayed as restless and rootless," the pendulum has actually been swinging back for quite some time. In 1950 about 21% of the population had moved the year before where as in 2010 the number was down to 12%.  So although young people are still the most mobile demographic, overall recent generations are actually more settled than their predecessors. Despite this general shift, the "elite" who hold college degrees continue to be heavy movers (77% have lived in more than one community vs. only 56% who have high school diplomas). The elite prioritize career over friends and family when stating their reasons for moving. (See this publication by the PEW foundation for more interesting statistics.)


A recent book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, touches on this need for a broader cultural shift in values, especially among the more mobile educated elite.  It's a nonfiction tale contrasting the transitory city life of an older brother with the settled small town life of his little sister.  When the little sister dies of cancer and the whole town comes out for her funeral, the older brother realizes that his sister had something that he's missing – community. Community is a gift that is fostered over time, it takes patience and forgiveness, a heap of small acts of sacrificial kindness, and most importantly, it takes presence.

Our society still needs some movement; especially in a polarized political and religious world that is so often marked by fear and boundaries, cross-boundary relationships are vitally important. But we need to learn how to move not just toward career and financial goals, but toward people. This doesn't necessarily mean moving back to your home town, but it means making people an important factor in your decision to live somewhere. It also means learning to bloom and set roots where you are planted, even if you will only be there a short while. Invest in getting to know your neighbors, not just the figurative neighbors of "Love thy neighbor as thyself" but your real neighbors next door. Share deeply with friends even if you know you may move away in a year and may not keep in touch. Know the needs of your community and reach out to help. 

At a reunion of college friends this past weekend many people remarked how insular their lives felt. Several had recently moved to a new city for school or for work, many had new babies and were absorbed in home life, and they all set the goal of reaching out to their communities more.

As one of my friends at this reunion said, in many ways our generation has undervalued the art and gift of friendship. My hope is that we could rediscover and reinvent the art of community friendship. We now emphasize buying locally and caring for our local environment, but can we also emphasize living locally? With Facebook and Twitter linking us to the broader world and a "fear of missing out" pulling us ten different ways, can we learn to live where we are, to love those placed in our path, to meet the needs of those around us?

I still don't know the family in the house next door to me. I know the man across the street does not like our loud parties, and I periodically see a guy named Rudy who lives down the street and I think has a crush on one of my roommates. But my life is not really lived in my neighborhood – it is lived in my house and then stretched across the globe.

In a couple months we're inviting the neighborhood over for a meal and I'm looking forward to finally meeting my neighbors and learning how to live a bit more locally. I hope others in my generation, living the transient life-style, can learn to do the same.