The Heart of Community
“Our challenge is to rediscover the heart of local human community and find ways to realize the depth and richness of traditional cultures that yet allow us the creative freedom we have come to enjoy as individuals in the modern world.”by Eliot Hurwitz
Like the air, or like gravity, community has always been understood as part of the basic medium in which we exist as human beings. In recent years, conversations about community have taken on a new degree of urgency epitomized by the many efforts to promote “sustainable” or “livable” communities. In the past this phrase might have been as absurd as “breathable air” once was.
Especially in the industrialized, and even post-industrialized, world, it is less and less clear what the essential elements of a “community” actually are. The characteristics that used to distinguish one place from another have been blurred or erased by the influences of the globalized economy. Our local cultural forms are drowning in a sea of global brands and global media. Our unabated mobility and restlessness continues to loosen the bonds of inertia or affection we have to any particular place. These trends are further accelerated, and the importance of place-based relationships is further marginalized by the continually growing influence of internet-based centers of interest (even like our DharmaCafé) and the growth of net-based commerce.
Many believe that this plugged-in, on-the-go way of life is our global future in common. In such a milieu how can we support the vitality of local communities? What is the essential nature and heart of local community? What does it even mean to have a local community that is viable and significant in a globalized economy and culture? Why should we care? To explore the answers to these questions we have to look at how the symbolic, psychological and physical dimensions of “individual” and “local community” have evolved and continue to evolve.
The great transformation in the 16th-18th centuries that gave rise in the West to the modern era involved a wholesale realignment in the deep symbol-mind of society. It was a tectonic shift in the root relationships between individual self, “others”, the objective world and God. During this period of change, the modern political state emerged in a process that resulted in the wholesale delegitimization and dismantling of a rich universe of symbol-rich communal structures, based in kinship/tribe, church, guild, and locality. These psychologically potent structures had been the repository of political and social authority and power for thousands of years in pre-modern Europe. Now, as the great transformation proceeded, these structures were being “mined” for the allegiance of humanity’s hearts and minds by the new factory world of the modern age. This transformation was intimately tied to the rise of the ideology of the individual, self-sufficient and self defining, and is the root of what we experience today as “the loss of community.”
Although historically the general commentary on this development has been celebratory rather than cautionary, neither mood will suffice under present conditions. For many of the European intellectuals of the time (and their contemporary heirs), the traditional society of class, church, school and patriarchal family was a realm of suffering, limitation and stifling restrictions on the individual. They dreamed of a world of true individual freedom in which the cloying bonds of these traditional authorities would be transformed, by evolution or revolution, into a single, rationally designed structure embodying the freely given natural sovereignty of all the individuals in the state.
But what do we lose? Historically, family, religious and village groups possessed an indispensable relation to the economic, social, political and spiritual events of life. Issues of birth and childrearing, courtship, sex and marriage, employment and education, spiritual initiation and revelation, infirmity and death were all dealt with in the context of these groups. The symbols that structured the human cognitive universe, rich in psychological depth and power, filled the human life and created a living connection to the wellsprings of social commitment and to the transcendent dimensions from which meaning arises.
By noticing what we have lost or discarded of such a traditional pattern, we may find a way towards the necessary heart of any possible community. In pre-modern Europe, and in pre-industrial cultures the world over, the forest of relationally empowered symbols grew rich and thick. It was an environment (physical, psychological, social and spiritual) in which personal identity was continually transformed by cycles of symbol-mediated encounter with significant intimate relations of all kinds. It had a complexity that provided resilience, depth, subtlety, and a capacity to engage the multi-dimensional challenges that life brings and the richness of personal possibilities that unfold as a person moves through the seasons of life. We must find a way to recreate that same living process today in all of the ways we realate to each other, to our world, and to the Transcendent Reality.
For several hundred years, until the late twentieth century, with the shift away from pre modern communal psyche, the symbol-dependent functions of human life (commitment, loyalty, inspiration, abstract fear, social identification and exclusion, etc.) found a home in the relatively abstracted nation/state. This shift was facilitated by using powerful ideological messages (like “the land of the free, and the home of the brave,” and “the American Dream”) to fix psychic allegiance, formally bound to local communal life, to the State. And for much of this time the extended family and its placed-based personal history still held much psychological power. In this milieu, it was difficult to see clearly how radically the symbolic roots of community had been eroded.
But this was only a transitional evolution. In recent decades, since the end of the Second World War, the process entered a new phase in which the concentration of corporate power has grown to challenge the primacy of the state. Within the past generation, the rise of corporations has played out a scenario similar in many ways to the emergence of Nation-States and their rise to power. That rise took advantage of the conflicts between the many elements of the old regime (the Church factions, the guilds, the new merchant entrepreneurs, the towns), by playing one against another and slowly usurping their powers, empowered by newly emerging industrial technologies that the State controlled.
In a similar way, modern global corporations, empowered by end-of-millennium communication and transport technologies (especially the extremely sophisticated mechanisms of advertising and marketing), are maneuvering in the spaces between the boundaries of the Nation State system to cast themselves free of the limitations of having to be “located” in any one place, subject to any one authority. A critical component of this shift from nationalist to corporatist power has been the further abstraction of human psyche from the confines of local place and time. The vast energies alive in the new corporate “mediasphere” draw their potency from their capacity to capture and traffic in the psychic allegiance and energies of billions of people across the globe. “The land of the free and the home of the brave” has been substantially replaced by “Save money. Live Better” (Wal Mart) or “Dreams are Good. Realities are Better.” (Citigroup)
With the further delegitimization and corruption of local communal authority by impersonal political and commercial powers, the terminally autonomous individual is, like a fish out of water, left to flounder in a strange dry world. Is it just evolution? Or is it a deathly decay of our primally sustaining environment that will slowly asphyxiate the being? The horror of the situation is particularly clear in the case of “development” in many traditional cultures in which new technologies create new centers of power and authority that leapfrog the intermediate Nationalist period and move directly from tribalism to Coca Cola!
Our challenge is to rediscover the heart of local human community and find ways to realize the depth and richness of traditional cultures yet allow us the creative freedom we have come to enjoy as individuals in the modern world. To do this we will need to investigate and comprehend much more deeply the nature of the individual self and the dynamics of relationship. The issue is not merely abstract or academic. The practical design of new local communities in a globalized age will demand a sophisticated mapping in our deep symbol-mind of the paradoxes and trade-offs inherent when free individuals live together. In part II of this essay, in concert with explorations to be found throughout DharmaCafe of the root relationships between self, others, world and God, we will examine the roots of “the individual” and “relationship” and how the paradoxes inherent in these concepts inform our understanding of the nature and potential future of community.