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.


  1. Love this, Lisa! So true and inspiring. I'm gonna go meet my neighbors now! (Btw, loved hanging out this weekend!)

    1. Thanks Anna! Glad you liked it and was great to see you too! Hope to hang out and talk more!

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  4. Several people posted some comments to my post on The American Conservative ( and I thought I'd repost my response in case it can provide further clarity to what I was trying to say in this blog post. Thanks to all for your encouragement and support, it's been so fun to expand my audience and to hear what others have to say!

    As the author of this post, I thought I’d chime in here. First off, thank you all for making this a discussion. This is the first time anything I’ve written has made it beyond my friends and family, so this has been a real privilege for me and I’m grateful to Rod for posting an excerpt of my blog.

    I do think the obvious thing needs to be said here and that is that I am spoiled! At the age of 29, I have had the luxury of living in 5 different countries and attending prestigious universities that have opened many, many doors for me. I am not limited, in fact my options sometimes feel limitless. It is truly a blessing which I don’t want to belittle, and I would not trade my limitless choices for being in a place where I had to stay put or move for one reason or another.

    What I was trying to get at in my blog is a point similar to what I think Rod was trying to make in his book. I am not trying to throw away all of my choices, but rather I’m trying to choose more wisely. As I face my wide menu of choices it is important for me to reconsider what is most important. Am I going to choose to prioritize career? family? location? friends? etc. With every choice (i.e. commitment) comes limitations – which limits lead to the most freedom, love, and joy?

    Most of my life I’ve really looked down upon those who chose (I emphasize the word chose) to never leave their hometown and to choose geographical and career limitations. Rod’s book helped me to re-examine my prejudice and to see the wonderful blessing in this choice that I had not really seen before.

    I still think cross-cultural experiences are really important and I wish there was a good way to both commit to a community while reaching out to the broader world. I think that this is ultimately my goal though it is a journey for me to find the right balance (if such a thing exists). I also think stage of life plays a huge role in where, to whom, and how much you are willing to commit. Life has seasons and I do think a season of movement can be very healthy. In my own life and in the life of many of my friends, we are realizing that it may be time to swing back toward to virtue of commitment. (as I said in my post, turning 30 soon I’m sure has a lot to do with this feeling!)

    In terms of why I felt the need to speak for the culture at large – this was from reading statistics on the high mobility rate of the elite and from reading other similar publications on how we have destroyed much of our community life (e.g. Feminism and The Razing of the Village, posted in The Federalist). Most of what I wrote applies more to this elite educated segment that has the luxury of choosing and perhaps I should have been more explicit about that.

    Even so, I DO think even the less economically privileged face a choice. One of my best friends grew up in a trailer and her dad, who has only a high school diploma, chose not to take a better paying job in another state and instead to start his own small business that paid him about $15,000 a year in order to stay near family. Everyone has choices, not just the elite.

    There is no one way to live and even though I want to move toward committing to people more deeply it’s something that I really struggle with. I’m just hoping to move a little more in that direction as I really do think that some of the greatest joys in life come from community.

    Thanks again so much for reading my post and for your comments. I wish you all the best in your quest to live well!

  5. OK, now I've finally caught up with your posts.

    I enjoyed this one, as I have everyone that preceeded it. However, my concern is that this path could lead to an idolatry of 'community'. While life in community is a good blessing from God, it's not the ultimate good.

    Remember, the command to "Love thy neighbor as thyself" follows - and is an outgrowth and a visible sign of - loving God. Throughout the OT and the NT, the love for one's neighbor is always a sign of one's love for God ... loving one's neighbor is never an end in itself.

    1. Perhaps what you're getting at here is what my great-grandparents faced when they decided to be missionaries. They had a choice between following what they felt was God's call to Latin American vs. staying at home with their family and community and ultimately chose to move.

      As in my great-grand parents case, I would heartily agree that community does not trump all and there are other competing goods and better goods, including loving God. But community is still a good worth pursuing and something I need to improve upon.

      I might disagree with you that loving one's neighbor cannot be an end in itself. But I have to ponder this more...

      Thanks for your thoughts and for reminding us of the ultimate good.

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    3. The example of the dilemma face by your great-grandparents is very pertinent. It's also a case of human limitation to discern God's will, because both the choices that they faced - go to Latin America or stay and serve their family/community here - are both good things that God to which calls His followers.

      However, I do not consider loving the community and loving God as competing goods at all. The former is always subservient, and a corollary of, the latter. That stems from my worldview - the point on which we seem to disagree - that loving one's neighbor is not an end in itself. Please allow me to explain why I hold that view.

      There is a pattern throughout the Bible of God revealing Himself, and then requiring a response that is consistent with His self-revelation. That's the pattern in the Ten Commandments. Its preamble, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" is the big point, and everything else that follows - including the instructions on how His people are to treat one another - is the response to this revelation. In fact, the lack of the required response is considered by God to be a rejection of His revelation. That's what is seen consistently in the prophets, (esp. the approximate contemporaries, Hosea, Isaiah, Amos, and Micah). God points out that Israel does not take care of its widows and orphans, and He cites that as the evidence that they have rejected Him. The lack of a response is tied to the rejection of His revelation of Himself. That causal link is also in the Gospels. When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, He cites loving God as the first and most important but quickly follows it with a second (corollary to the first) commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

      I recognize that we may not share this view, so I simply submit it for your consideration.