On the contrary, community, like tradition, isn’t something you choose. Visiting friends or joining groups doesn’t make community, just like reading a book doesn’t make you part of a tradition. Tradition and community are each a big bundle of “stifling situations” that demand that you (to varying extents) conform your identity, your lifestyle, and your talents to the needs, customs, and values of the particular one you find around you. Esther Moon asked some very challenging questions about that in her recent post, “Detention with the Outcasts.” Sure, modern America definitely offers more choices than medieval Europe did. We can choose a church. We can choose a neighborhood and even a city. But within the context of those choices, there are stifling situations. Once we make a choice, we have to live like we’re a part of a community, like we’re part of a tradition—with all the responsibilities those things entail.
Or we could do what we’ve done all our lives: dodge those responsibilities and continue the Quest for Me. We break up when the boyfriend becomes demanding. We live alone because our roommate never cleaned the bathroom. We move when the neighbors become annoying. We switch churches when the preaching grows dull, the cool music director leaves, or that snarky woman keeps asking why we haven’t become members. (We also affiliate politically as independents for similar reasons, irritated at the idea that people want us to sign on to a list of ideas somebody else came up with.)
I’m not preaching; I’ve done some of these things too—we all have. But let’s not lie to ourselves. When we refuse to engage in “stifling situations,” we avoid all the things we’ve been conditioned to dislike—conformity, inconvenience, commitment. But we often also deny ourselves the opportunity to find ourselves, to develop our talents, to do good in the world, and to discover meaning in life.
Yes, when we live alone, we’re more likely to visit friends. But let’s not pretend that’s community. We can’t have community, find Mr. Right or inner peace, or do any of the other things we’re desperately searching for, until we’re willing to reject the most central principle of our childhood: that life revolves around us.
Brian Brown is the editor-in-chief of Humane Pursuits.