Community has always been central to the human experience. From our prehistoric origins as small bands held together by familial ties, to the vast, variable agglomerations of people that make up our modern publics, the ideal of community has proven an enduring encapsulation of what it means to be human.
Yet with the increasing atomisation of everyday life it can be difficult to feel that we are truly part of any such community. The social affiliations that we encounter day to day, in the office, at home, among our collection of geographically dispersed friends, don’t quite function in the way that, say, the smaller scale towns and cities of the recent past did. It’s easier than ever to stick to the people we know and trust, having only the most fleeting encounters with those outside our immediate circle.
On one level this is a case of sheer practicality – we simply don’t have need of the same type of social networks that were once common. We’re much less likely to create a sense of rapport with the supermarket cashier who we might never see again than with the local greengrocer, butcher and postman who we encounter repeatedly. As the scale that society functions on has increased, the sense of shared intimacy with those in our immediate vicinity has receded.
Community building is more of an active process now that our societal structure has become increasingly individuated. Whether formed in the digital or virtual world, we can no longer take the existence of community as an implicit fact but are forced to seek out our place among those who share a similar mindset, interests or life experience.
The sense of connectedness that we find in community can feed back into our lives in truly positive ways. An undergirding of support and shared meaning does wonders for our overall mental health and wellbeing, providing reinforcement to our identity as individuals within daily life. Human beings thrive when we feel that we belong, and community gives us the opportunity to feel empowered through participation, articulating who we are by engaging in meaningful interaction with others in whatever form it takes.
All humans need to feel that they exist within some sort of context. Religion, the state, the nation all provide ready-made contexts for us to step into and inhabit, meta communities that encompass human subjectivity on a grand scale. Yet while this level of community can define us in terms of what we are – British, Christian, European etc. – it is the local articulations of community that reflect who we are, our passions, friendships, and character.
Community offers the chance to contribute something, to step outside of ourselves and into a wider framework of existence. When like-minded people come together to offer support and encouragement, to gather and talk or simply be together, we open up our potential as individuals. Whilst we contribute meaningfully to the lives of others, we enrich our own as well.