Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Our "Community"

Some people today are a wee bit complacent until something jumps up and bites them.
—a Roanoke city councilor quoted in Bowling Alone.
As I sit up here on the 14th floor in my splendid isolation, I've had a fair amount of time to contemplate the nature of human connections and community, the emphemeral and the permanent, the accidental and the designed.

I'm certainly not the first to cover this ground. Robert Putnam's seminal Bowling Alone used the demise of bridge clubs and bowling leagues as a metaphor for the unraveling of community connections as Americans' sense of place succumbed to suburbanization and migration. Putnam's work spawned a coterie of academics and activists devoted to experiments in rebuilding "social capital" in communities.

While I certainly saw something noble in the idea of reforming community glue groups like Elks Clubs and Garden Societies, there always seemed something archaic and quixotic about this approach. We live our lives now in cities and towns we hardly recognize, even if we grew up in them. Ad hoc communities are formed at offices, youth soccer sidelines, and "networking" events. People pass into our lives and touch us or we touch them, but rarely are those bonds more than fleeting. We will update each other with Christmas cards, "friend" one another on Facebook, and if you're as good a person as my wife is, you will call regularly.

Here in Boston, The Barr Foundation funded several ambitious efforts to map out these informal social networks and learn how they formed, reformed and sustained themselves. I won't try to summarize all that was learned in these efforts and what it tells us about how adaptive, organic networks might change the way we live. As Barr was studying all of this, we saw the emergence of forces that will, shortly, bring us back to the subject at hand (I promise).

Howard Dean is unfortunately remembered for one ill-advised scream and less for a radically new organizing model that was adapted by Deval Patrick in his race for governor here in Massachusetts and then perfected by Barack Obama. Most political races are about politicians much more than ideas, and the press does little to upset this maxim. Dean and his advisors used the Internet to mobilize and connect a group of people with a vaguely shared idea (that the Iraq war had to end). Once connected, this activist network took on a life of its own.

That said, these networks are not easily manipulated, the way Tammany Hall might have moved its network. I remember after he pulled out, Dean saying that he would put his network at Kerry's disposal in the general election. We know how that turned out. The network had formed to oppose a war, not elect a politician, and enough people in that network distrusted Kerry's sincerity to make it a neutral factor, as much as they despised Bush.

During the campaign for governor here and the presidential election, much was made of the movement that had been created, the number of people who had been moved to act, to give of their time and money, to build a better state or country. After the elections, earnest commissions were formed to discuss how to mobilize this ad hoc community once again in the act of building something better.

Here in Massachusetts, little evidence of the 50,000-strong network Deval Patrick built remains, nor do I see a grassroots network backing Obama more than tacitly. It's obviously easier to rise up to do battle than it is to rise up and do something that truly changes anything.

In my trademark meandering way, this all takes me back to this blog and the community we've built. I've been moved in myriad forms by the connections I've been able to make through this to people I sort of knew, people who sort of knew me, and people who didn't really know me at all before this all started. I got an email late last night from one of these friends, expressing how my latest poem had touched him. Someone else emailed me today with ponderings on the pursuit of self-knowledge. And a sister of a friend emailed me from Louisville a few days ago to thank me for the "In Treatment" recommendation.

As I awoke this morning, I thought about what an unexpected gift it has been to reveal myself to others and in the process, have so many others reveal themselves to me. I've certainly questioned my own motives at times, but the reality is that it has been so much easier to walk through this with all of you than it would have been alone.

What I wonder now is to what purpose we turn this? I do not mean forming a club or a movement or even a Facebook group. Some of you are becoming first-time platelet donors in my honor. Others may have a different conversation with their partner than they've had in some time because of what this journey suggests about our shared mortality. What I do know is that none of us will be the same for the connections we're forging with each other, and I have to believe that some higher purpose may well be served if we dare hold on to those connections through the static that will surely return to my life as it does yours.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Your post touches on something I've been thinking about alot today.

I remember going to my first cancer support group after completing my initial chemo in 1991and being struck by the authenticity of the communication and caring. I felt like I was touching the best of humanity.

We were people from diverse backgrounds, education and so on who probably would never have become intimate had it not been for the shared cancer experience.

That group dissolved years ago, when the demand for it cratered with the rise of virtual support groups.

You ask, "to what purpose?" I think it is up to each of us. The impact can be long-lasting:

In 1990, a colleague whom I knew only very casually made a meal for my family and brought it to my home. I was surprised, grateful and touched that he took time and effort to make the meal and bring it to my home.

Today I saw him at a medical meeting for the first time in ages. And I told him how much his effort meant to me and my family 18 years ago.

That single act still shapes how I think of him and his family. And it reminds me that every day we are surrounded by people doing good things without any fanfare. My hope is we use the connectedness to highlight all the good.

Wishing you a smooth and complete recovery. With hope, Wendy

SMP said...

Thanks so much for making your own "connection" and revealing yourself, which of course reinforces the idea that I was exploring here.

All the best,


Mary said...

Great piece, Steve. I've been observing my own transformation from a Luddite who thought it impossible to have anything like "community" without face-to-face contact, to someone who values ANY way of connecting to others. During this cancer thing, John and I have been greatly cheered by many faraway friends--little, regular contacts that would have been impossible by phone, or even in person, by busy people, even if they lived next door! It will be interesting to see how this new way of making community evolves--it's obviously meaningful to many, many people. All we want to do is be in touch!

As usual, you're in my thoughts and prayers.


Mark Alston-Follansbee said...

wow Steve, i didn't know you like to bowl. go figure, Mark

kieran said...

for those of us who live far from blood "family," your post really strikes a chord.

All I can say, again, is how sorry I am you are going through this.

Sending hugs, prayers, and (hopefully) funny blogs.