COMMENTARY | The Challenge of Community: On Being Alone and Being Together

Like Blades of the Grass

The contemporary American poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer wrote:

And if it’s true we are alone,
we are alone together,
the way blades of grass
are alone, but exist as a field. (“Belonging”)

As poetry will, these lines hold a deep truth: Yes, we are alone; and, no, we are not alone: We are in fact… alone together.

Individualism—the very concept of liberalism is bound up in claims of individual worth and dignity. Individualism has long been a goal of European political thought. Yet, despite the many fictional depictions of the lone, successful individual, relational being is our lived experience. We know we are connected, but what does that mean? This question sets up an anxious tension that permeates Western societies.

The disjunction between our mythology of individualism and our actual location in community can be wrenching, as many in our society live in the anxiety of personal accusations of failure, which often leads to dropping out of the very community networks that would bring relief and perhaps even success.

Staying in Your Bowling Lane

In 2001, the American political scientist Robert D. Putnam published Bowling Alone. In that now-classic book, Putnam traced an alarming trend of disengagement from traditional social anchors such as sports leagues, service clubs, social organizations, and organized religion. What was being lost, according to Putnam’s research, was an intangible but very real asset—“social capital,” which he defines as “ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties.”

Looking at the entire title of the book— Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community—we can now see that Dr. Putnam’s optimism was showing (as it was again in his recent book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, 2021). The sad fact is that the decline in social cohesion that Putnam traced in 2001 has only accelerated with the advent of social media, a reality that becomes painfully clear in Putnam’s recent revision and reissue of Bowling Alone.

We’d all do well to join Putnam in searching for an antidote, even if trends show that such an eventuality is not at all likely. A recent headline in the online publication sums up the challenge: “A sense of belonging is what drives well-being—and it’s disappearing.”

For empirical evidence concerning the connection between human community and human well- being, one of the best studies is the eighty-year-long (and still going) Harvard study that shows “that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier.”

The problem is clear: Americans are losing connection with each other and therefore our larger society is fragmenting. That’s bad for the individual human psyche, for social cohesion, and for political stability. Community and the sense of belonging resulting from participation in community is clearly the answer, but Americans are not choosing to join existing groups.

Alone: bowling alone, dining alone, seeking truth and justice alone.

All of us know how it feels to be the outsider. We also know how it feels to belong to a group, a community. How to go about achieving the feeling of belonging is not, however, entirely clear in a reality dominated by flashing screens.

Think Small!

After looking into the accumulating research, one is tempted to shout, “Just go join something already!”

But… join what?

After all, people are difficult. One incentive for joining a group of human beings is that the group has some purpose or outcome that we ourselves identify with or agree with. But, the complaints are true: many groups spend more time on planning potlucks or maintaining buildings than on changing the world.

Groups also often spend most of their time demonstrating why they are not like other groups. For example, as a humanist, I join humanist groups. Those groups, however, often disappoint because their chief focus appears to be finding ways to not be like religious groups. Negative definition makes sense, but it doesn’t make for a long term, satisfying communal group to be part of. The question “What are we going to hate this week?” is not much in the way of glue.

Joining for negative reasons doesn’t lead to the positive effects that joining into community can provide.

The contemporary Canadian philosopher Alexandre Lefebvre provides an intriguing answer to the us/them conundrum of groups in his book Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson’s Political Philosophy (Cultural Memory in the Present).

Bergson’s philosophy calls us—claims Lefebvre—to join into community for the very reason that we wish to counteract groups that subsist on difference. I’m reminded of the old labor-rights song in The Little Red Songbook (to be sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”):

They divide us by our color;
They divide us by our tongue,
They divide us men and women;
They divide us old and young,
But they’ll tremble at our voices,
When they hear these verses sung,
For the Union makes us strong!

Perhaps you are not prepared to join the International Workers of the World. However, most politically, socially, and religiously liberal people can sign onto the sentiments expressed in the song—it’s the old saw about building bridges rather than building walls. Bridge building is what liberals do.

For liberals, dividing people based on old prejudices just isn’t acceptable. In Bowling Alone, Putnam talks a lot about two functions of community: bonding and bridging. Some groups bond over similarities, closing out difference—humanists are not Christians because . . . .

Other groups bridge across the obvious differences in order to reach deeper connection—humanists and Christians joining together to work with Muslims, for example.

Sure, bonding over similarities is considerably easier than bridging across differences. Which is why we must keep trying.

And if it’s true we are alone,
we are alone together…