When community & compassion become abstract

by Kristin on April 15, 2009

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

This morning I read a blog post that instantly made my mind race, and got me raring to write my own blog post. I love it when that happens.

The post that revved me up today was this one, by Rebecca Thorman at her blog Modite: Will Gen Y ruin local community?

Just the words “ruin local community” make my heart race, and Rebecca’s post gave me new reasons to fear for one of the things I love and value most in life—a deep sense of place. People who live near each other and know one another. Parks and front porches, and parents walking their children down sidewalks to school. Cafes and libraries and farmers’ markets you can bike to.

Among the things that Rebecca says are working against local communities are the collapse of the housing market and the prominence of Facebook serving as “chief community-builder.” She makes some really good points.

Does not committing to a home prevent us from committing to a community?

The whole “to buy or not to buy” a house issue happens to be very dear to me. If you’ve read my post A turning point with a street address, you know why. Here’s part of the comment I left on Rebecca’s blog:

This is the third house I’ve owned, and I will say this: Owning a home in a neighborhood does change how you feel about your community—how you interact with it, how you invest in it, and committed you are to the people, parks, etc. In the few years before I bought my current home, I was feeling extremely restless and unhappy about circumstances I couldn’t change. Buying the house represented a turning point for me—it symbolized a deliberate decision to embrace where I was. The thought of an entire generation of people not doing that really worries me.

I know what it feels like to not want to be tied down—to feel addicted to having options and possibilities. I also know how refusing to commit to something affects how you respond to it. After I committed to being here in a concrete way, I began to open myself up to caring about people and places—caring about them so much, that I knew it would hurt if I lost them.

What happens when our acts of compassion become abstract?

The concreteness that comes from being rooted in a physical, geographic place, also connects to how we care about the people around us. One of the concerns I’ve had since joining Twitter—a concern that Rebecca’s post prompted me to revisit—is the effect online communities have on how we give and show compassion.

If you’re active on Twitter, you’re probably presented several times a day with opportunities to give. From well-known organizations like the American Heart Association and opportunities to respond to natural disasters, to very grassroots pleas to help a mom on Twitter meet her rent payment and avoid being evicted, people are utilizing Twitter in creative ways to help others.

For the most part, I think it’s wonderful that Twitter can be a vehicle for philanthropy. Lots of people out there want to be generous and help others, but they don’t think of it or don’t know exactly how to make it happen. Twitter is in your face, making it easy to give. That’s great.

But it does concern me that so many ways to give today are removed from our physical communities and day-to-day lives. Will this also be a Gen-Y phenomenon? Giving that is easy, on-line, makes you feel good and can be checked off your to-do list?

I think it’s important to give to the food bank that helps feed the families of kids at your local school. It’s eye-opening to give to the soup kitchen where you can also volunteer your time. It’s meaningful to give money to teenagers you know at your church, who are going to one of the poorest counties in the US to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, and then to hear their stories when they return.

Is it possible, as our sense of concrete, physical community dissolves, that our acts of compassion will become so abstract that they cease to be truly compassionate?

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  • http://hollyhouse.blogspot.com Jennifer

    Hm. This is chock full, girl. When we lived in Tulsa for three years, Kurt started casting about for a job closer to PA. God closed some doors, HARD. Then I had to come to grips with the fact that I live HERE, not there. So I reached out, I made friends, I got involved. Now, this is my home. It would difficult to leave.

    But I don’t necessarily thing that online technologies are to blame for the erosion of community. Yes, now we can give online to vastly different places, but it no different than my grandfather mailing in his tithe check because he didn’t go to the building. In fact, I think one of the benefits of Twitter that I was thinking about today is that I have discovered whole new aspects of the community around me through that medium. I think community is where you look for it and strive to make it.

    Then again….

  • http://cleverfoodblog.blogspot.com/ Jason

    I think people have always had a bias toward permanence. In this college town it can be hard for people to put effort into making friends with people that you know are moving away. Maybe it’s in 6 months, or maybe it’s years away, but since we’re planning on staying, we want to have friends that will be here as long as we will. The online world gives a certain persistence that transcends physical location, and that gives people a sense of comfort. Besides, there are so many people who don’t know (or don’t want to know) their neighbors. It’s easier to go online and pick people whom you want to commune with than putting in the work to get along with neighbors you didn’t choose.

    I guess I’m Gen Y, so I have a hard time accepting stereotypes like this, but I do see a lot of other people around my age constantly focusing on text messages and Facebook status changes. I think it’s important that people find a community to be a part of, whether it’s in your neighborhood, in your religious organization, or online.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Well. LOL :) This is going to be long. I know it already.

    First, I think compassion becoming more abstract by the year CAN and WILL make our compassion cease to be truly compassionate if we don’t make some changes, not in our society necessarily, but in our own individual lives. Before I go into my personal experience here’s something I read a couple weeks ago in Jim Palmer’s “Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity” (the context is he is talking about tithing):

    “This process implied to the receiver that the church (as an organization) knows better to do with your tithe or gift than you do….The method also complicated the process of getting the gift to the person in need. The giver and receiver were not able to express the reason they gave or their thanks for receiving the gift, both of which God uses as part of the process of transforming both the giver and the receiver. Giving to whom God directs, when God directs, was less likely since people were conditioned to think of giving as an act of organizational involvement” (Palmer, p.29). You gotta read this book, Kristin! ;)

    It seems to me that that totally, easily applies to giving through ANY organization or “middle man giver.” My father-in-law says that people get stupider and stupider about nature, the further they get away from the land. An example of this is Sacramento big-shots deciding to protect a tiny little fish that is “endangered” by not allowing water to go to thousands of farms in our area, and thereby hurting not just the farming community but the state and even the world. A tiny fish! And perhaps this same “distance creating dead brain cells phenomenon” applies to giving to people who need it, as well. The further we get from the need, the more hands our gifts pass through, the more impersonal it becomes.

    O.k. so I’m going to get personal now! :) I live in a tiny town I’ll call “E”. We live on a street I’ll call “W.” The north side of W Street is houses and the south side of the street is the elementary school for one whole block. The next block of the same street is the Presbyterian church we attend. My little family lives at one end of W Street in a house we built a year ago on property belonging to my inlaws, who live next door to us in the house my father-in-law grew up in, as did my husband. A little white gate separates our yard and their yard. It gets better! While my father-in-law was growing up in the house next door, my mother-in-law was growing up in a house 4 doors down, where her father still lives. Both families, as well as most of the other families on the street, attended the Presbyterian church, so it was logical for my in-laws to get married in the church…after all, both THEIR parents had, as well. And we did the same.

    Meanwhile, don’t forget, the elementary school is across the street from all this. My husband’s grandfather was the principal for many years. My husband’s great aunt on the other side of the family taught kindergarten there for many years. My mother-in-law is now a first grade teacher there and my daughter, Emily, was in her class last year. This year my daughter is in Mrs. P’s class. Mr. P grew up on this street and got in trouble with my mother-in-law’s little brother and my father-in-law’s little brother. When Mr. and Mrs. P got married, my husband was the ring-bearer in their wedding. Later my husband worked for Mr. P during the summers.

    My husband’s grandfather would most certainly need to be in a rest home, except for the fact that my mother-in-law and a few of her sisters take turns coming in and getting him dressed in the morning, making his breakfast, coming in the evening to make dinner and helping him get into bed. They can do that because they live down the street from him. My daughter, Emily, walks across the street to his house each afternoon (he’s her great-grandfather) and they watch PBS while he feeds her cookies and she shouts things at him he can’t hear! We sit in a certain pew at church each week because…well, we just do!

    So basically what I’m saying is…we live in a small town that is like nothing most people have ever experienced. We live with, shop at The Big Potato Market (yes, that’s the actual name) with, and attend church with the same people, many of whose families grew up in the same manner as my husband and in-laws. This is a place most people would assume doesn’t exist anymore. We know there’s tiny towns that people stay in for generations, but assume they are all in the Ozarks or something. But this is Central California. Our town borders a very large city, in fact. But somehow, some way, it has endured.

    That’s the pretty side of the story. The not-so-pretty side of the story is that we are one of probably a couple hundred “middle-class white families” who live comfortably here in our town, but there are far more extremely poor Hispanic families who live in conditions ranging from “poor” to absolute squalor. Emily is one of three Caucasian children in her classroom. Many of the poorer Hispanic families are here because of the farming in our area. They have found work as farmworkers and laborers, which of course makes the population quite transient, as well. But yet, our church is 99% white. We sent a team of high schoolers to do the annual missions trip to Mexico during Easter break, while people suffer just around the corner. Our church has started a “Hispanic Service” that is poorly attended but exists. We have “outreach” programs and events (Breakfast with Santa, Pumpkin Party, etc.) every year and teams of people walk around our town and distribute fliers beforehand. We get a pretty good turn out. We have an Awana program at our church that draws community kids who don’t attend our church, partially because we have a $1 dinner beforehand and parents can leave kids ages 4-12 for 2.5 hours and know they’ll be fed and cared for.

    But damn it, we tithe. We rarely have more than 100 people on a Sunday morning and yet our tithes keep an old, drafty Presbyterian church building (steeple and all!) running, a full-time pastor, a part-time youth pastor, a secretary and numerous ministries and programs fully funded. After reading Jim Palmer’s book (the one I quoted from above), I have been thinking about our sweet little church with its 100-year-old history differently. I’m not going to quit going. It’s a freaking family reunion every Sunday! But I am feeling uncomfortable with the number of hands my gifts and tithes pass through….and why. So much need is in our very backyard (literally) and yet we (in Jim Palmer’s words) “drive right past them on my way to church (Palmer, p.33).”

    So what is my point? Hmmm….not sure. I guess I just wanted to say that even in a town that is wierdly small and connected, there is a disconnect, an abstract quality, about my “acts of compassion.” We have and will continue to give directly to individuals and not just through the conduit of our church. But I’m not sure that’s enough. What if we try NOT tithing, or perhaps only tithing a limited amount, and intentionally spending the rest of what we would have tithed on meeting needs directly…from one hand to another. I think that’s the only SURE way of preventing compassion from being abstract and ulimately heartless.

  • http://modite.com/blog Rebecca

    Wow, great post. Your question at the end is something I worry about a lot. And it’s actually one of the first posts that I disagreed with on Employee Evolution that prompted me to comment, which prompted me to blog, and, well, you know the rest of the story. I think this is one of the most important issues right now… I feel a bit like I’m sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see how it will all play out. Thanks for writing this.

  • http://cleverfoodblog.blogspot.com Jason

    Indeed some churches (like the non-Christian church we attend) ask members to give half of what one would normally give to the church, and the other half directly to charitable organizations of their choice. Also, half the cash offering on Sundays goes to a local organization chosen each month.

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    I’m not sure the world is truly on its way to heck in a handbasket at the hands of Generation Y. My daughter and her friends (technically Millennials, not Y) are very curious and generous people, and find many other like-minded folk in the world. Our current economy may be scary, and our stay-put-ness has certainly changed since WWII, but communities are alive and well.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Hi all, just a quick note to tell you I’ve been reading, thinking about, and enjoying every word you’ve written here today. I love hearing your thoughts. My plan was to respond before bed, but I just got home and don’t think I have the clarity to put my thoughts together the way I want to, tonight. See you in the morning!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jennifer, you make a good point: “I think community is where you look for it and strive to make it.” It’s what we invest in a community that matters most (time, energy, emotion, and $$). I’ve seen really powerful examples of that online, and I’ve seen really crappy examples of physical neighborhoods filled with homeowners who don’t know or care about each other at all. Maybe what needs to change is that more people need to see and experience the value of being a part of a connected, supportive community, so they’ll have reason to become change agents in their own circles. Maybe one of the ways to make that happen is for those of us who have had these really positive experiences need to keep telling our stories about them. :)

    Jason, I’m really glad you brought up the aspect of living in a very transient college town. That adds a whole dimension of complexity, that I’ve struggled with repeatedly since moving here. Also, I couldn’t agree more with this: “It’s easier to go online and pick people whom you want to commune with than putting in the work to get along with neighbors you didn’t choose.” Are we willing to be neighborly with everyone, or just with the cool neighbors we have a lot in common with? I have a tendency to over-romanticize ideas like community, but in reality, it’s work. It’s not just about inviting your favorite neighbors over for a cook-out. (Regarding your second comment, what “non-Christian church” do you go to?)

    Cheryl, you wrote a guest post! I love it! :) The whole analogy to nature—the farther we get from it the stupider we become about the environment—is a powerful one. And the story about your life in your town? Amazing. You’re right—very few people have every experienced anything like that. And while you and I might both be prone to romanticize such a community, you wisely point out that it has a “not-so-pretty” side. Simply being a solid community does not solve problems. As you say, “…even in a town that is weirdly small and connected, there is a disconnect, an abstract quality, about my “acts of compassion.” So much to think about here. I just might have to write a follow up post! (And Jim Palmer’s first book, Divine Nobodies, just arrived yesterday! I’m going to start reading that before moving on to Wide Open Spaces.)

    Rebecca, thanks for the inspiration! I’m very curious to see how it plays out, too. It’s kind of exciting that we can all discuss and problem solve together as we look for new ways of doing these things.

    Daisy, I’m sure you’re right. Each generation has caring, involved, curious people, along with careless, self-centered people. It’s not as if the Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers have exactly set the gold standard for how community should work, or how we should care for others. These are the generations who built back decks and privacy fences and attached garages, which allow them to avoid interacting with others. Change isn’t a bad thing, at all, but it’s important to look at the past, to see what worked best and to have dialogue about how we can all move forward without completely trampling things we value most.

  • http://cleverfoodblog.blogspot.com Jason

    We go to the UU church (sometimes). My wife and I both grew up in varying degrees of (more or less) Catholicism, but we both became disillusioned. I think we started going to this church about 2 years ago. We attended my brother’s (Christian) church’s Easter service and were appalled by the message that they had. We both decided that we wanted to have some sort of church in our (and our kids’) lives, and after doing a fair amount of research, this was the one we ended up at.

  • http://www.howtomatter.com Jeb

    If your post wasn’t so awesome and, therefore, didn’t encourage reams of digital responses, I would have read every word and been much more prepared for this comment. But it was. And it did. So I’m not. You’ll have to forgive me if I reiterate some of the sentiments of your other commenters.

    Now then, I’d like to say a word or two about Community. I’ll make this short. This thing we’re doing here, it’s an amazing ice-breaker. If by some chance I ever travel to the vicinity of Normal (literally or figuratively), I would not hesitate to have a cup of coffee with you and I wouldn’t feel the slightest bit strange. I feel like I know you KT. Of course, that’s great for this online community, but how does that help local communities?

    Good question. I’m an introvert by nature. My wife is the social face of our family. Always has been. Over time, that only gets more and more true. But here’s the thing…because of my interaction with you and a few other particularly gracious and wonderful people, I have been emboldened. Since moving back to Colorado in December, I have attended 3 meetups, where I actually interacted with other people, face to face. In person. Where they could see me. AND…I started my own group (www.DenverLikemind.com) and have had the chance to get to know some really fantastic people (tomorrow is our 3rd meeting :) ).

    In other words, connecting here has allowed me to connect elsewhere. To feel the warmth and fulfillment that comes from the bonds we’re building online, gets me excited about taking it to the next level and creating those kinds of bonds in my own community, with people I can see and hear and touch. I think this is true for so many people, and if I had this tool available to me when I was 15, I think I would have gone out into the world MUCH more confident and anxious to connect. Think about the social experiment that is High School. Do you think THAT is a good model for community building?

    It wasn’t for me, and it took connecting with people all over the world to bring me back around to what I firmly believe is the natural human state. Namely, the desire for communion with others. Here, there, everywhere.

  • http://www.roseyposeyconfections.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Haha! I didn’t mean to write so much!! :)

    I’ve been thinking more about this the last couple days and I have a couple more thoughts. First, I think what the mom about her young daughter is interesting. Today’s teenager doesn’t remember a time when either the anonymity of Internet social pools OR without the “omni-present” quality of relationships through cell phones and especially, texting. I’m 32, started blogging a couple years ago and have been on facebook for less than a year and started texting about a month ago. The contrasts between my social interactions before and since the technology is huge. I can talk to virtually anyone I know (or to strangers, if I so desire) at any time of day or night, something that is still a novelty.

    The collapsing of “walls” this technology allows for has both a negative and positive face. Our children being “safe” inside the walls of our home isn’t something we can take for granted. Inappropriate intimacy can be developed between either strangers or acquaintances, with parents or spouses none the wiser. But on the other hand, I know from experience that this “wall-less” world allows for friendship, understanding between and the formation of community between people in separate continents. The world is smaller. Our children have a much more realistic understanding of the “humanity” of people outside of their community, culture and continent. In the two years of blogging I’ve done, I have become friends with women all over the world. I’ve exchanged gifts with Ginny from the UK, conducted an online workshop with a woman from Australia who I went on to meet in person at an art retreat last Fall. I have become close to, talk in the phone with and plan to visit a customer-turned-friend from Italy, who I also met in person at the retreat. My relationships online have absolutely NOTHING to do with physical proximity; they are completely about having interests in common with one another.

    This new world without walls makes people thousands of miles away, our neighbors. The potential for interacting directly with people in need is no longer limited to the people who live in our physical neighborhood. So yes, I could give to a cause I know virtually nothing about only because someone tweeted about it. But I could also develop a personal relationship with the nun who runs an orphanage in rural Benin, get to know the children through exchange of photos, notes and potentially even webcam. My children could grow up having a more personal relationship with little girls and boys in that orphanage than I had with my first cousins who lived on the opposite coast from us. Our family could save up and go visit the orphanage one summer. We could help one of the kids come to live here when they graduate and fund their college education. One of my children could wind up marrying an orphan from Benin they’ve known virtually their whole life.

    My point is this: technology allows for both incredibly impersonal, non-compassionate giving but it can also be the means by which a new generation of adults who don’t just imagine need but are actually intimately acquainted with it. That can not however excuse my family or I from ignoring our actual neighbors’ needs. This is actually more difficult compassion; we can turn the web cam off and not read the emails but the physical needs of the people who share a fence with us have to be (should be) responded to consistently and within the context of an actual relationship. It’s far more exciting to put together a package for the orphanage and then see photos of the kids wearing the clothes we sent than it is to offer babysitting for the single mom whose only way out of poverty is taking night classes.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jeb, I love that you’ve connected what happens in your online community to how you relate to your real-life community. I tend to put them side-by-side, to do a compare and contrast. But they’re very related, as you point out. I love this: “it took connecting with people all over the world to bring me back around to what I firmly believe is the natural human state. Namely, the desire for communion with others. Here, there, everywhere.” I’m so glad I can be a part of it all, too.

    Cheryl, you bring up many great points. And maybe I’m thinking about it this way, because I just responded to Jeb’s comment, but I see a pattern, here. It’s not about either-or—real life or online. It isn’t about comparing and contrasting, which is better, which is worse, how should one change the other. It’s about finding ways to bring the two together, making each of them more powerful. The sum is bigger than its parts sort of thing. I think this is true of blending on line and real-life giving, too.

  • http://themoderngal.blogspot.com The Modern Gal

    I’ll take issue with the argument. I’m on the border between being GenX and GenY. I moved to a new city about a year and a half ago and brought my Twittering habit with me. Fortunately for me, my new city is very plugged in via Twitter, and local Twitter users started finding me there, and I found them. Pretty soon we started meeting up in real life — and that included community leaders and the average gal like myself. If anything, Twitter helped me to strengthen my ties to my community in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Modern Gal, I can completely see how Twitter would shape your physical community. If I moved now, particularly into a larger city with a more active Twitter population, the same thing would happen to me, I’m sure. People who have had experiences like yours need to keep sharing them, and demonstrating how these various on-line and real-life realms can increasingly connect and feed each other.