Friends and colleagues have asked me, “How would you like it if your bank made you sit with a group of neighbors in order to carry out your banking business?” The question is asked rhetorically, and the questioner never waits for an answer. It is assumed that it is obvious that the rituals of savings groups are an inconvenience to people, that anyone in her right mind would choose the ease and convenience of formal banking over the endless meetings and risks and involvements of savings groups.
I’ve been reading the book Community: The Structure of Belonging, by Peter Block. The author spends a couple of chapters reminding us of how isolated and alienating life has become in the industrial world, particularly for those who live in suburbs and spend a lot of time in automobiles. Among many sources, Block draws on three people whose work I greatly respect – One is Christopher Alexander, whose book A Pattern Language is the reference for my family, every time we set up a home, and has equally inspired the city of Portland, always highly rated as one of the best places to live in the US. Another is Werner Erhard, whose courses argue strongly for the possibility of authentic communication. The third is Robert Putnam, who has popularized the concept of social capital, a quality that is measured by the richness and frequency of interactions among people.
Reading Block’s book has been an opportunity to think about my own life, which is filled with all sorts of distractions from my work: board meetings for a local NGO; fund raisers for other people’s NGOs; conference calls with friends with whom I’m organizing various events; neighborhood salons, at which the folks on our street get together, have wine and cheese, and talk about matters of mutual interest; weekly shopping trips, that we always make with our neighbor, a habit that started when we were trying to live without a car and has continued since we got one, not for the negligible gas savings but for the chance to ride and shop together.
Every one of those activities has been a deliberate choice, and I treasure them all. They have helped me feel at home in a new city, they take me out of monologue into dialogue, they introduce me to new ideas, they give me minor conflicts to resolve and situations to mediate. When I am being a member of my community I am a more interesting person than I would be if I stayed home, went shopping alone, and watched television in the evenings. All the things that hurl me into contact with other people, that take countless hours, that are often at the wrong time, that are sometimes inconvenient – they are not interruptions to the rest of my life. They ARE my life.
Community is being rediscovered in the United States. Farmers markets are catching up, some, to big supermarkets; supermarkets are convenient, but only ten percent of shoppers in them have a conversation with another shopper; farmer’s markets have less choice and take longer to shop in, but people have more conversations with other people. Community is alive and whole, complex, irritating and satisfying, joyful and sad, comfortingly safe and disturbingly risky. It is unpredictable because it depends on human beings, but for the same reason it is empowering and satisfying.
This has been in the back of my head every time I have thought about the question, “How would I like it if my bank made me sit with a group of neighbors in order to carry out my banking business?” But I want to answer it this time: I don’t know. It would be terribly inconvenient. But I’d make a lot of new friends, I’d learn a lot about my town, it would be fun, it would be messy and alive and exciting. It’s a close call.