A small hunchbacked woman is climbing the stairs of a subway with a huge roller cart full to the brim. She is taking one step at a time, laboring to pull the cart up, then herself. It looks as if this could take the rest of the day. You are behind this woman. Hopefully, you feel the pull to help her and ask if she needs assistance. I saw this happen a couple of times this week, even by people who seemed to be in a huge hurry.
Opening doors, giving up the public transit seat to an older person or parent with small children, returning a dropped item to a stranger walking by – Chivalry probably needs to stretch a bit from often underused muscles, but it is certainly not dead.
But what concerns me more is our slow, but steady movement toward living autonomous lives on a macro level. Sociologists have studied the movement from the “it takes a village” style of family raising to the “nuclear family” style over the past century. Americans take pride in our ability to do things on our own and our families seem to be moving into that realm as well. As we are able to move easier now, moving oneself or one’s family to the other side of the country for a job doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. More and more, we have an unspoken drive to “Do it on our own.” Individualistic pursuit of progress. Be the best you can be. Army of one. All about number 1.
But what we are losing is the power that the collective can do for us. Sure you can go far on your own, but if someone helps you out, you can go further. While we all don’t have to be Leigh Ann from The Blind Side, we can try to change our point of view to be more open to, in not default to, being more altruistic.
I don’t think ones network of advisors (or community) should be a crutch, though. They should be a ladder when needed, a seat other times, and a shoulder to hug/cry/laugh other times. Having a big family, I understand intrinsically how this works. But for those of you who may have had more of those “aspiring to be nuclear” families or not had this sort of point of reference, here are some of my thoughts on how to inject a bit of community into your offline lives (I figure, I spend all the rest of my time talking about online/work stuff, why not see how my other side thinks) :
- Shop/eat local/organic when you can.
This is a hot topic lately, right? And I am so guilty of chosing the cheaper choice. But going to your local farmers market or grocer or market/boutique when you can afford the time and cash really does make a difference – in your health and in your community. Plus, if you have kids (or just want to learn yourself) it’s a potential learning opportunity to learn about new foods, processes, products or services.
If you have never volunteered, go now and sign up for something. Disney will even give you a free day at their parks this year. Find an activity that makes you feel happy and then share that with others – Painting old schools/park benches, visiting a nursing home, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, tutoring at a school, planting a garden in a public place – whatever. Whatever you do, you will find it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.
And don’t give up. If you really aren’t connecting with some activity you have signed up for, don’t get down on volunteering, look for another activity.
- If you do move, make sure communication channels are established and maintained.
My family moved across the country when I was little, but my mother made sure that we talked to all of our relatives regularly and went through great pains to have visits with them at least 2 times a year. Because of that, we are still very close with each generation. When I moved out and into college across the country, my mother made sure that all my younger siblings came to visit me each year, especially when I wasn’t able to make it back home myself. I have connected all my family members with video cams now, so we can talk and see each other on video chats when we can. I have friends in Italy who make Skype dates to chat with friends and siblings. I make sure I update my facebook so my extended family knows what I am doing when I am out of town.
It’s all difficult, sometimes in the setup and always in the maintaining, but its worth it. The more you talk with people, the more you are connected (even when it’s digitally), and our current technological communication channels make it easier than ever. Social Media is not a trend, it’s a new opportunity to connect. And this doesn’t necessarily have to mean just family. Friends, coworkers and anyone else you feel close to is what I consider family – and therefore your community.
- Get to know your neighbors.
This one’s tough for me as I am an urbanite and have been off and on for most of my life. I love the anonymity that cities afford. But lately, in an effort to fight my hermit instinct (I swear, I am one) I have been making myself chat with my neighbors. It’s a good habit as a friendly human, but there are practical reasons too – they can water your plants and check your mail when you are away or let you know if there have been any unsavory events that you might have missed. Living in a vacuum is easier, but joining the community has more benefits.
- It takes a village to raise a child.
This is a big one for me, especially lately with the figurative baby boom that is happening in my friend and family circles. Child raising is hard, especially at the beginning. If noone has ever told you that, I am happy to be the first to tell you. And with our individualistic culture growing, it’s harder to SAY it’s hard. We have basically made a culture of parents who aren’t “allowed” to show they are stressed out or need help. So if know someone with kids and you are able, help them out. If you are no good with kids, offer company or host a dinner. If you are ok with kids, offer to babysit or help run errands for them (kids are CONSTANTLY being needed to be picked up from somewhere). You are not only helping out your friend, you are showing the kids that people can and should help each other out
And if a child is doing something wrong around you, as a member of the community, you should feel entitled and empowered to tell that child to stop it. 10 year olds swearing in public, trying to steal something from a shop or being mean to another child will get a “Hey!” (and usually a bit more) from me, especially if they are unsupervised. I am not trying to question parenting styles, I am trying to do my small part at helping form our next generations. Those kids are going to apply for jobs, be able to vote and fight for our country and even have kids of their own, in not so many years. They should know that there are people looking out for them, for when they are in trouble, as well as when they are causing trouble. I will keep on keeping on, but it’s more effective if we all do it together.
My views are not going to coincide with everyone elses. And that’s good – as then children get more chances to realize that while there are different viewpoints, we are all part of a whole and we are looking out for each other. But remember, hearing someone judge your parenting is painful and hurtful. And it’s also rude to judge other people’s kids and parenting, especially harshly. So think before you speak. Hopefully you are doing that anyway, though.
Now it would be hypocritical to say that I am not a card carrying member of the bootstrapper philosophy myself,. Oft times, you will hear me say “Head down and keep marching” or “Walk it off.” Like I said, I am also a reluctant extrovert (I swear!). I would much rather divert my eyes and grunt a greeting, than get to know my talky neighbors. But I see the value in working towards a goal of community, so I work past my neuroses. And someday I will make it to one of those pug meetups my neighbor always tells me about. Not necessarily because I need to talk about pug habits for 2 hours on a Saturday morning, but because it’s the right thing to do.