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Thoughts on the fabric of community

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Living alone and working as an independent contractor, the structure and reality of my life has looked quite different from what might be considered traditional. I did not come from a large, extended family and have had little contact with the few relatives who exist out there in the world. My parents died when I was a young woman and my only sibling lives a thousand miles away; visits are infrequent. Three of my grandparents died before I was born, and I had only brief visits with the surviving grandfather, who apparently was a bit of an alcoholic rascal, so I was also missing the loving human connection with the past that grandparents sometimes provide. Consequently, I’ve listened in wonder to tales of other people’s family reunions with 40 or 50 or 200 people showing up and have felt like an alien when I’ve been invited to join in. How could you possibly know all those people? How could you keep track of them? Would you even want to?

My ex-husband’s extended family gatherings gave me a taste of how things were done when there are a lot more of you and there are traditions to be followed. Both sides of his family came from Bohemia, the predecessor to the Czech Republic. His paternal grandmother spoke little English and lived in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, largely populated by Bohemians who did not trust the Eye-talians (or anyone else) moving into their neighborhoods. The local corner store sold Czech newspapers and the week’s specials featured on the windows, also in Czech, provided the makings for pork roast, potato dumplings, duck, sauerkraut, fruit dumplings and other favorites. Visiting Grandma Sejnost was like taking a step back in time. She had a crude, flat metal false tooth, always wore her hair in a bun and asked me once when I was going to wear my hair like a married lady. When I asked, curious and amused, what she meant, she was flustered, afraid she’d insulted me, saying “Never mind, your hair is fine. Very pretty.”

She had no doubts about what tribe she belonged to while I was a typical mongrel with English, German, French and perhaps some Scottish DNA. There were no fond stories of the old country nor treasured ethnic traditions in our household; our food was pure Betty Crocker, bland and boring, as I remember it. Perhaps that’s the reason I now love flavorful, ethnic food.

Initially, expecting more somber behavior, I was shocked at the boisterous visiting and laughter at Grandma Sejnost’s wake as people greeted those they hadn’t seen since the last wedding or funeral. I was curious about two very somber men in conservative suits, sitting by themselves with their hats on their laps and not interacting with anyone. I was told they were strangers, representatives from Grandpa Sejnost’s union who were dutifully paying their respects, even though he had died fifteen years earlier. Now that’s tradition.

My tribeless existence has led me to seek or to create community, trying to figure out how it works. It often seemed much harder than I thought it should be, and I came to realize that most of us, as Americans, just don’t have much of a clue about healthy interdependence in community living. We have the affluence to buy everything we need and much that we don’t, funding our independence and isolation. While part of us yearns to be an integral part of a larger whole, we often lack the experience and traditions to become the warp and the weft needed to weave the communal fabric. Sociologists describe humans as social, tribal beings, and we keep searching for elusive pieces we’re not sure how to identify. Many people have immersed themselves in Native American or Eastern spiritual and tribal traditions that seem to offer a structure and richness very different from their own experiences; others try to find connections within the religion of their youth. Since the 1960s, an explosion of small groups has proliferated, as people seek connections with others through common bonds, interests and needs. Support groups for dealing with addictive behavior, parenting skills, marital problems and mid-life crises flourish. Social groups created as book clubs, sewing circles or discussion groups often provide the opportunity to develop long-lasting friendships.

Last Saturday, I heard author Sebastian Junger interviewed on Live Wire Radio on MPR. He wrote Perfect Storm, War, Fire, Restrepo, A Death in Belmont, and most recently, Tribe: On homecoming and belonging, in which he explores “what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging and the eternal human search for meaning.” We have all experienced how people may bicker and feud about silly things, but when disaster hits, we hang together and help each other out. When a big snow storm would hit Minneapolis, we all had to get out and dig our cars out and move them off the snow emergency route or have them towed. We called greetings to neighbors we’d never met, shared the latest forecast, lent shovels, told weather jokes and helped each other get through it, then returned to our safe anonymity. Proof of our willingness to help others is evident when the river is rising and a flood of volunteers show up to build sand bag dikes; when we organize a fundraiser for someone facing huge medical costs; or when we team up to provide rides to chemo treatments, bring needed food and shovel the walks without being asked.

Junger, a veteran himself, wanted to explore how difficult experiences of war and other disasters lead soldiers and ordinary citizens to feel extraordinary closeness, purpose and meaning in their lives until they return to their previous lives, needing to reintegrate into a society where they feel they no longer fit. After two years of living within very different cultures, intentionally becoming members of those communities, returning Peace Corps volunteers have very high rates of depression. During the siege of Sarajevo and after 9/11, people said they felt needed and closely connected, facing the challenges together. Rates of depression, suicide and violent crime, including murder, actually decreased. Junger cited the story of Nidzara Ahmetasevic, who almost lost a leg during the siege in Sarajevo and had to undergo surgery without anesthetic. Years later, she said she was embarrassed to admit they all kind of missed life during the siege, even though it was so hard, saying, “We were better people then. We helped each other. We lived more closely. We would have died for each other. Now it’s peaceful. We’re wealthy. Everyone just lives for themselves. And everyone’s depressed.”

Junger says that while only 10% of the military are engaged in combat, roughly half of the military has applied for disability based on PTSD, and he theorizes that the real unidentified issue for many is that of returning to a society that doesn’t provide the close connections and the meaning they experienced in the military. He says that the reaction is particularly acute when soldiers are sent far from home to fight while life is going on quite normally at home; that when one is defending his own house, there’s little trauma because it clearly needs to be done, so the PTSD rate in Israel is about one percent in spite of decades of ongoing conflict.

Does that mean we need to create disasters to foster connection? I think not, if we’re willing to take the risk of letting other people into our lives and stepping out of our comfort zone to mingle with all those potential tribe members. When was the last time you invited someone new over for dinner? Have you taken the time recently to really hear someone else’s story about their day, their life? How can you use whatever resources you have in your life to build connections rather than walls?

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