Losing the Sense of Community
McGill Summer School - July 2006 Paper delivered by Fr. Harry Bohan
Fr Harry Bohan
on 23rd Jul 2006
What is Community?
The simple answer is that it is a word that describes a group of people living in one place. We know though, that it means an awful lot more. It's about the spirit of a people, the soul of a society, how they relate to one another etc.
We have a fair idea how the economy is promoted. But who promotes community? Who promotes it in a pluralistic society? Who promotes it in the marketplace? Where does meaning come from in these new times outside of the soulless valve of the economic?
Family and Community were two systems that held Ireland together for generations. People lived in groups composed of families that, more or less, had the same roots. They spoke the same language and wore the same kinds of clothes. They lived by the same rites, rituals and traditions, had the same code of behaviour and accepted the same authority. There was solidarity among them born of both their flesh and blood loyalties and their need to co-operate to meet material needs. The sense of belonging, solidarity and identity was etched deep in their collective unconscious.
Community cushioned the extremes of the various 'isms' that visited the people of Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries such as Colonialism and Catholicism. But its greatest test and challenge has come in the form of the other 'C-ism' Capatalism. While the other 'C-isma' might have brought a certain amount of strife at their heart they were a unifying force. Capitalism attacks the very roots of community by making the individual the centre of everything and suggesting that once individual wants and needs are met there is no need for other people. Contemporary society is not the product of the market place disintegrating as it grows and testing our powers of communication. It is the economic miracle that has made this so. While we are grateful for the fact that we are now the best housed, best schooled and best clothed generation this nation has ever seen, we must be aware of the dangers the miracle can entail for our society.
This breakdown in confidence in community pushes people into a desperate form of individualism with all the struggles this implies in order to climb the ladder of success on which they base their sense of self-worth. This is taking a terrible toll on family life and individuals alike. Stark individualism increases and a terrible loneliness sets in within which people can only find relief by working harder for more money, more success, more distraction.
No man or woman is an island. People cannot live in isolation and in such extreme forms of individualism; everybody needs friends or companions. A sense of togetherness, belonging and shared experience be it in groups of friends, in family, in clubs, in churches or in groups of any kind it is an integral part of human nature. Community is the foundation of human society. Isolated we curl up and die.
In one out of 20 Samaritan branches in Ireland in 2005, 29,500 contacts were made; callers confided thoughts of suicide in 1,800 calls and sadly were in the process of attempting suicide on 50 or so occasions.
But there are indications that the level of individualism is now bringing such pressures that it maybe giving rise to a deeper search for tangible community, belonging, meaning and relationships.
Briefly, I want to cover four broad areas which I believe require serious consideration if our society is to reverse the trend and restore a natural balance in the area of human relationships.
Until very recently we defined spiritual growth purely in terms of a religious 'label' which people wore - be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew and in these times spiritual leaders were spoken only in terms of the leaders or guides within the faiths.
In this new century, a new definition of spiritual leadership is emerging which manifests itself in ordinary people searching for spiritual inspiration both inside and outside of the established religions. Indications of a widespread search for meaning, and a people trying desperately to connect with their own soul, and the collective soul of humanity, is evident in many ways. One only has to look at the 'spirituality' sections of bookshops, in the new holistic centres that are springing up, in yoga, in meditation courses, in changing food consciousness, in the exploration of alternative medicines and in a desire to be closer to nature to find evidence of this. Many of these 'explorers' are practising members of other denominations left unsatisfied by the rituals of their faith. Spiritual expression is becoming more diverse and consequently, spiritual leadership is coming from new sources. Many people are now making a conscious choice about who they want to lead them in their spiritual quest. I believe that the established churches can only compete if they are to offer meaningful spiritual growth. Ritual, habit and tradition are no longer enough to hold people in the faith of their parents. That is the central challenge and duty facing organised religion - to regain its spiritual leadership through giving people what they need -spiritual growth. Nothing else matters. Not power over others, not status in society not the parish finances and not defending the status quo. The spiritual growth of the individual is itself a fuel to the growth of a sense of community. If people are growing spiritually then what they do as planners, business people, teachers and citizens must be enriched by this growth. The last century was about the material/external world - this century will be about the spiritual/inner world or about nothing.
Building our future from our roots
There is every indication that one of the great challenges facing us is how the local will respond to the global. Already we are seeing clear indications that in the search for identity some areas of Irish life such as music, dance and language have acquired a whole new lease of life. Ireland as a nation is made up of approximately 2,000 communities of various shapes and sizes. Central to these communities would have been the former 'pillars' of church and sport. People identified with these communities down through the years. Many are now expanding, some at a phenomenal rate - taking on a new shape.
Coinciding with this expansion is a renewed interest in local history, heritage, sense of place. In this context, we need to be careful to acknowledge the achievements of generations that went before us.
We are well aware of the scandals and the breaches of trust that have plagued modern Ireland with regularity in recent years. These are effectively the betrayal of the present generation by preceding generations. They call attention to the civic nature of morality.
One can only welcome the honesty that refuses to allow things to be swept under the carpet. From hereon trust has to be earned, not conferred and this is to be welcomed too.
But as we emerge from this period of 'cleansing' we need to be careful not to heap our own sins on the sins of the fathers. There is obviously a certain rejoicing in the debunking of politicians and heroes, churches and traditions, moral values and past achievements. But there is a real danger now that we are willing to delude ourselves that we are somehow better, more honest, more trustworthy, more enlightened, more moral than those who went before us. It might also suggest that we can begin from here and that we are capable of building a civilisation without roots - from scratch, almost - that we have nothing to learn from our predecessors, or that we learn only from failures not achievements. It could even lead to the suggestion that we have no past to be proud of. We could convince ourselves that greed, for example, has no part in our world, or abuse of drink and drugs, - that all the abuses of power belonged to the past and that judgmental, authoritarian people and organisations belonged only to another age.
Planning for Communities
One of the most notable features of present day Ireland is the unstoppable and rapid tide of housing and retail development in our towns, our villages and most noticeably, our rural areas. The debate on the direction of our development is now moving on to address what I believe is a more important question - what does this type of development say about what we have become, in modern prosperous Ireland? Are we planning for houses or for communities?
There is no doubt that the rapid growth of many of our settlements have raised issues, which I think need to be addressed urgently. Too many of our housing developments are happening in a head-long rush to facilitate the property developers and speculators. With food and clothing, housing was always regarded as a basic necessity for life. It has now become a commodity for trading. Can we honestly say that many of the new developments are something we can truly be proud of and be admired in years to come. If we are truly honest with ourselves, I think the answer is no. Could we do it better? I think the answer is yes, we could. I believe that people should be inspired by development, should be proud of it and should benefit from it. There is much to be gained from sensitive, balanced and well designed development. But there is even more to be lost when it is insensitive, unbalanced and poorly designed - it leaves us feeling uninspired, powerless and disillusioned with progress.
We now find this necessity achieving the status of unachievable for many particularly and most tragically for the young. To provide a solid base from which to raise a family parents are now drawn into the crushing mill of capitalism. People in their twenties are saddling themselves with crippling mortgages to buy houses that are improperly finished and worth a third of what they cost.
Coping with Cyberspace
We are all acutely aware that the great revolutions of the past 20 years are in the area of communications technology and this is having a profound effect on relationships. There has never been anything in human history like the personal computer. The impact it has made on society is probably unequalled. Computers are machines that handle information. The common use of computers by ordinary people is less than 1/4 century old. The internet is even younger still and only began to impact on society in a big way in the early nineties.
Who could have foreseen that in a short span of years, the internet would hold more information than all the books that had been produced in the world since writing began? That is what the experts tells us. But when we try to address the concepts of community in today's world it is the manner in which computing has influenced the interaction between people that interests us.
The existence of cyberspace has made completely new forms of communication possible and more importantly quicker. When letter writing was the main form of distant contact there was a period of at least a couple of days before a reply arrived. With e-mails and the aptly named instant messaging services available, information can volley back and forth across the world in seconds or in many cases less.
The internet has become the main avenue of communication for the modern world. This development has far-reaching consequences, which are only beginning to emerge. It is an unusual happening, as nobody really structured it, or for that matter, controls it.
Ironically, the machine that most clearly represents to most of us the kind of 'progress' that is quoted to us by our political masters in relation to society has given people an opportunity to comfort an increasingly nagging need. The need for community. The latest on-line phenomenon is that of 'Communities'. These are virtual meeting places where people with common interests, feelings and ideals can come together to share those emotions and gain a sense of belonging that is missing from their daily and it must be pointed out actual lives. There is a terrible sad aspect to this expression of yearning on the part of humanity at large. There is a desperate desire to interact in a meaningful way with each other but in the modern world we can only, it seems, find it in a world that doesn't exist.
The fact that all internet communication must take place through the medium of a machine is critically important. Even with the most sophisticated web-cams or video conferencing when the interaction is over, the participants are immediately separated by perhaps thousands of miles. Even if the distance is only one mile the solitude is no less real. In this the internet achieves the remarkable feat of bringing us closer together by keeping us further apart.
I have posed many questions in the last half an hour and hopefully some of you will have already began to come up with some answers. In the next generation of people and I want to stress that word people we have unlimited potential. While we have made stunning advances in recent years we must not forget that it is all made possible by people. Despite what we tell ourselves we are very fragile animals. We are emotional, social and sentient which is a miraculous combination but also a very dangerous one. That indefinable thing that we call a soul singles us out of all creation as needing extra nourishment which we realised very early on we get, in the main, from each other. The shoulders to cry on and slap depending where we lie on the rollercoaster range of our emotions. We are tactile and generous and ultimately good but we need to interact with each other to enhance these attributes. In doing this we extract the very best from our human condition and this ultimately will benefit us all.
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McGill Summer School - July 2006 Paper delivered by Fr. Harry Bohan