Monday, March 28, 2005

Musings on community and meaning

Faced with the task of trying to infuse meaning into the celebrations of the past two weekends, amid the clutter of faded and broken traditions and the pressure and chaos of our lives right now, I found myself musing about what these celebrations might have looked and felt like in a pre-Industrial community. Amidst the rosy-hued, warm-fuzzy daydreams of rolicking and frolicking spring festivities, I sensed a thread of something deeper that needed to be followed.

Stepping back a moment to the definitions of community that I have most recently encountered...that of proximity on the one hand and coherence of values on the other...I recognized another aspect that I hadn't appreciated before. In a pre-Industrial community, there was proximity of geography and often also a proximity/coherence of values, but there was also an intimacy, a knowledge of individuals and a precise history of the artifacts of daily living. You not only recognized your fellow community members, you knew what they did--ate the oats they grew, the wheat they ground; wore the clothes they wove, the shoes they made; wiped their kids noses, helped at the birthing and dying of their kin. They were more than what we think of as friends and neighbours--they were more like extended family...

Most of us have never had this experience of the world. Of knowing intimately where all the things of daily living originated...of whom they originated with...The concept of belonging--of one's place and meaning in the world--would have been very different. The concept of the stranger, much more clearly defined, absolute. How would this affect one's basic psychology? What implications does it have for those of us working to create meaningful communities today?

I live on a small island. I know most of my neighbours and many of my fellow islanders. But when I thought of the intimacy of the pre-Industrial community--I found myself thinking that my neighbours were more like friendly strangers--that even parts of my extended family could be placed in the stranger sphere. What does it mean to live in a world populated mostly by (even friendly) strangers? What does it do to my sense of where I fit? Of how I contribute? To my sense of safety and belonging?

How much harder is it to create meaning when that meaning is not shared with a group that also shares the other aspects of our daily experience? What am I gaining/losing by not knowing the history of the artifacts of my daily life? How can we compensate for the lack of this multilayered experience of community? How much of modern angst, depression, anxiety is rooted in this constant dwelling among friendly strangers?

I also thought about all of the tools, methods and techniques we are busily inventing to cope and compensate for this deep loss. I thought about how often I feel that we are reinventing the wheel. That a lot of the mechanisms we need for cooperative living and learning are present (if perhaps buried) in the cultural practices of extant tribal cultures. (Is this the ugly head of colonialism rearing up again? Just wondering...)

Which leads me to the idea put forth by Shoshana Zuboff in her latest book, The Support Economy, that we most often only look for our new ideas in the light cast by the lamp standard of our current thinking--and that truly new ways of being are out there in the dark.'s to foraging under the salal in the dark of the moon....

Merry Spring and Happy Easter to you all!


Chris said...

One needs to be reasonably dwarfish in stature to forage under the salal...but I can't wait until those berries ripen in June and July and we can feast on them!

wendy farmer-o'neil said...

Yumm! I think the Gabe faeries might pitch in and help pick!