Community – History Did It Better

Technology, communications, medicine, transportation.  There are some things that the Modern World does really well.  Not too many people would be willing to give up their refrigerator or their iPhone.  But there are a lot of other areas where the Modern World falls woefully short of the way things used to be.

Yep, you heard me.  As fancy as we are these days, there are things that we’ve lost.  Things that people several hundred years ago did much, much better than we do now.

One of those things is community.

Several studies have been released recently that show that the more “friends” someone has on Facebook and the more time they spend online the more depressed and isolated they feel.  Far too many kids these days are growing up in front of televisions or playing video games and not interacting with other people.  Communications skills are going downhill and with them generalized anxiety disorder and related problems are on the rise.

So what was it like before this?

In the Middle Ages – in just about any age of history up to the Industrial Revolution – the vast majority of people lived in rural villages.  Life revolved around the land, the seasons, and the manor.  There was very little travel unless you were wealthy, influential, joined the military, or happened to be in a time or area where people were migrating or settling in new lands.  Chances were that you would spend your entire life living in the same general area as where you were born.

In these villages it was likely that life would follow a similar rhythm from year to year.  Without extensive trade each locality needed to produce its own food, clothing, and shelter.  That meant that in the spring every able-bodied man would be involved in planting, in the summer they would be cultivating, in the autumn they would be harvesting, and in winter they would be drinking.  Well, what else are you going to do when there are no crops to look after?  Okay, so there would be a lot of fixing tools and tending to animals, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that a lot of winter days were spent knee-deep in ale.

Ah, but that’s the point!  Back in the day, if you lived in a small rural village whose main activities circulated around agriculture, you would spend all day every day interacting with people.  Without the benefit of mechanization to get the farm work done you would need to rely on your neighbors for the heavy lifting.  Work of any kind, whether sowing or laundry, was accomplished much more effectively when people worked in groups.

That’s all obvious, of course, but when I stop and think about it, as I often do, being a History nut, I wonder if your average 21st century person really gets what that implies.  Sure, communities were much smaller, they were less varied, and they didn’t have as much cross-pollination from around the world, but what they did have was a sense of identity that I believe much of the modern world has lost.

I grew up in a pretty old fashioned community.  I used to tell people that I grew up in Pleasantville.  (If you haven’t seen that movie starring Tobey McGuire and Reece Witherspoon you totally should!)  My hometown was a community in the traditional sense of the word.  It was started deliberately in the 1880s when the members of a church which had been located in Philadelphia packed up and moved out to what was then the countryside.  The point was to start a community founded on the principles of the religion.  It continued on as an isolated entity through the 20th century and still today, although a lot of things have changed.  But at its heart it is still a true community in the historic sense of the word.

My hometown in the early 1900s

Of course I hated it growing up.  Teenage Merry was eternally frustrated by the fact that everyone knew everyone else’s business.  When you ran into someone in their 60s or 70s they would instantly ask who your grandparents were, and as soon as you told them they would not only know your family tree going back three more generations, they would form an opinion about what your character must be and what your interest probably were.  It irked me that if anything happened to any of my cousins I would invariably run into five people by the end of the day who would want to give me a hug or ask how things were going.

But I could always count on the annual Fourth of July parade and picnic.  I knew and still know what time the speeches are given on Memorial Day in Borough Park.  I kind of liked the huge crowds that turned out for the Charter Day (i.e. Homecoming) football game and the white and red balloons that the eighth grade sold every year.  They would play the same music at the Christmas Tableaux every year and we would sing the same toast songs at everyone’s wedding.  Yes, my community was very in to singing.  Maybe that’s why so many singers and musicians have come from my hometown.

There was a sense of tradition and togetherness, identity, in my hometown that I haven’t seen in that many other places in the 21st century.  And of course I wanted to get as far away from it as humanly possible as soon as I could flex my independence.  But then I got older and realized what I had run away from.

Communities like the one I grew up in do exist out there in the world, but they are an endangered species.  And I think people are suffering for it.  It seems only natural to me that the rise of psychology and psychotherapy roughly coincides with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of big cities.  We used to turn to our neighbors for help and advice.  We would sit around the pub on a cold winter’s day drinking ale and swapping stories that everyone had heard a dozen times before.  Now we order a latte to go from Starbucks and sit by ourselves without even knowing our neighbors’ names.  And we wonder why we’re so depressed.

We can never go back again.  Well, unless we’re Amish and have made a conscious effort not to move forward.  Then again, the tools of modern life, the very ones that lock us in our rooms in front of a glowing screen, can form the basis of a whole new kind of community.  I believe in the global community.

I’m a part of a couple of really great online communities.  They’re not quite like the real thing, but they’re still pretty awesome.  I’ve made some great friends there, friends that have carried over into my “real” life.  And while online communities still have a long way to go before they feel like communities of hundreds of years ago, I think the potential for them to provide us with the support that we need is there.  The key is for us to take them seriously, to reach out when we feel we are needed, and to respect each other’s ideas.  To me that sounds obvious, but we’ve all seen examples of people who make us cringe because they think they’re safe on the other end of their computer screen.

A part of me would like to return to the age of the rural community.  There’s something there that appeals to the part of me that wants to belong.  There’s also something about the whole thing that makes me squirm at all of the possibilities of being trapped in a place where I don’t fit.  In the end I think that if you find the right community life could be pretty darn good.

What do you think?  Would you rather live in a tight-knit community at the risk of feeling claustrophobic now and then or do you prefer independence at the risk of feeling alone?