Pop Quiz: What Makes a Community a Community?

My friend Anna recently commented on an old Schmexas post called ‘Sometimes You’re Just  Not Feeling Like Community.’ She asks some really great questions, and I’d like to spend some time thinking about them together. Here’s what she wrote:

I had an experience of not feeling like community this morning at the gym…actually, make that every time I go to the gym. Although, now that I think about it, maybe I’m wrong about that. I wonder if perhaps there is a definite line between community and socializing. Does community necessarily involve conversation and social niceties? What are the essential elements that must be present in order to have “community”? I say this because although the last thing I want to do in my early morning sweaty hour of ugliness is have a conversation with someone, I do sense a kind of community going on there. I feel a kinship with these other smelly, perspiring, folks. I don’t want to get to know these people, make friends with them, or invite them to dinner, and yet they are my community somehow. Is it because we are all struggling and suffering alongside one another? What makes a community a community?

Well? Good questions, eh? I’m curious to know what your gut-reaction answers are. And if you take some time to think about them, do your answers change?

Let’s pretend that this is a pop quiz. Get out a piece of notebook paper, and be sure to put your name and date at the top to get participation credit today.

Name: ___________________________

1.) Does community necessarily involve conversation and social niceties?

2.) What are the essential elements that must be present in order to have “community”?

3.) What makes a community a community? Is it because we are all struggling and suffering alongside one another?

Okay, for real now. I am serious about wanting to know your thoughts. I know that many of you are thinking about these questions because you are e-mailing me about them and bringing them up when we meet for coffee.

So really, think about it–I look forward to hearing your responses. You have my permission to number them.

[Feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me an e-mail here: schmexas (at) gmail (dot) com. (For future reference, this address is now listed under the “About” tab above.) If you do e-mail me, let me know if I have permission to use your thoughts and words in future blog posts. As I’ve said before, Texas Schmexas is meant to be a forum for conversation, not just me and you, one-on-one, but all of us together.]

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5 comments on “Pop Quiz: What Makes a Community a Community?

  1. Elaine says:

    Quick gut reaction without thinking about it particularly – I am one of those who does all the time though – community is different. Just like every little town is different, so is each community to which we belong. My school community is based upon ‘intellectual thinking’ and my position here is as a leader (teacher), different than my community at church, based upon like beliefs, where my position is different (choir director). I believe we all belong to multiple communities and in each one we play a different role.

    Some of my communities are social, some are directed by requirements (like a job), some are quiet communities. I shop in the same grocery store all of the time, and see the same people as a rule. We are a community in that we share a common place and exercise, but we don’t socialize other than a nod of the head at times. These communities can change drastically in need, such as the community in AZ last Saturday following the shootings.

    What are the essential elements of a community? I think a community involves a common ‘something’, be it a job, duty, social interaction, or requirement. I think families are community as well. But I use the term in the broadest sense; others may use it in a more narrow sense. Therefore, whether you want to be a part of community or not, if you are alive, you are. But do you do anything with or for your communities? That is another whole question. Are you a ‘hanger-on’ to your community or an active participant?

    And I wish we were closer so that I could be a part of the coffee community!!

  2. elizabeth says:

    Elaine,
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts! I really like the idea of what you call “quiet communities.” When we lived in our townhouse and I was home during the day, I would often see our mailman when I was leaving for or returning from a run. And on some days I would see him in other parts of our neighborhood when I was out jogging. We would always greet each other, but that was the extent of the relationship. Then, one day, I ran into him at the grocery store. Instinctually, I greeted him in a friendly manner, not thinking about how I knew this person. After we parted ways, J asked me, “Do you know that guy?” Know him? He was our mailman!

    Somehow that seemed related to your idea of “quiet communities” when I started typing it. Maybe not so much now. 🙂

    I’d love to hear more about your thoughts (or others’ thoughts) about what that essential “something” is that makes a community a community. Is it just shared time? I’ve wondered that myself. In Texas, our community bonds came faster because we were part of a transient community–we knew our time was limited, and so did everyone else, so we had to be community and we had to be it fast. Here, though, community seems to only come through long-term shared experience. That is probably a deeper community, but it is also a slower and more difficult one to weave your life into.

    Other thoughts?

  3. Loquatious says:

    I like this chick!! She does ask great questions. I do believe that community is very different for different people and in different situations. I understand completely her sense of community without taking to anyone. Could be hour of the day, could be gross looking, could be grumpy because you are exercising, whatever. Another morning person who loves exercise and is totally extroverted might need a whole different sense of community while exercising in the morning. Neither is wrong. Maybe someone just going to a dog park and watching other dogs play with her dog would consider that community. Maybe your loner exercise friend is known as the most outgoing and friendly employee at Borders bookstore and maybe the cashier at Arby’s loves to see her coming in because she is so personable. I personally like my community in small chunks of people. I am not fond of groups, even relatively small ones, but I love being with other couples. Must I change that?? Must I move away from my natural quiet, introverted nature to meet someone else’s desires and definition of community? You know ladies always talk in the bathroom but that is not consider socially proper for the gents.

  4. Greg Garrett says:

    Elizabeth–

    I’m wondering what makes community myself–I feel connected to friends in Wales and NZ through Facebook, but also know face to face community is what makes me feel most alive and part of something. And I think that community has to be made up of people who acknowledge each other and care about each other–proximity doesn’t get the job done by itself.

    I had an interesting community form in Wales this summer with very different people–what we had in common was that we were all working in the library, and we were all eating together. Different professions, different projects, and from all over the world.

    Gins and tonic also probably helped. So that’s my recommendation to help form community: proximity, fellowship, gin.

    Greg

  5. elizabeth says:

    Here are a few more thoughts:

    Loquatious–
    Thanks for joining the conversation! You bring up some interesting thoughts, especially about whether it’s fair to say people “need” different things in community. My instinct is to agree with you, but then again I’m an introvert, despite my skill at hiding it behind layers of fake-extrovertness. And when I’m with folks, I certainly prefer the “small chunks” of people, like you say.

    But the more I think about it, I’m not so sure; if someone doesn’t “need” a lot of investment in community, is it really community, or is it selfishness? Or, rather, if we aren’t willing to invest in other people, even when we’re tired and crabby and just not feeling like talking… well, I’m wondering what that says about us and our willingness to actually be community to each other.

    Not that Anna needs to start chatting up her gym-mates at 5 am! Definitely not. I think we need to define different types of communities, since they aren’t all created equal. I think that’s what Elaine is getting at, and so is Greg. Speaking of which–

    Greg–
    I joined Facebook precisely because I started blogging about community, and it seemed a bit odd to continue my stance against it on principle. Even now, though, I tend to call it pseudo-community because it can so easily be turned off. Can we “turn off” community? (I’m planning to post a sabbath meditation this later today.)

    By the way, my gut reaction to “Proximity doesn’t get the job done by itself” was AMEN! But, well, life in my small town, especially in my small church, is making me second guess you. At the very least, I think proximity is a good start. Being near each other on a regular basis makes us at least see–really see–each other,even as we aren’t aware of it. Sure, there are people who are more or are less willing to invest, but even those people will be reached out to when they lose a loved one for instance, when they are so broken they can’t hide it from the community–and it is those moments, I think, that community becomes what it is. Or, perhaps, at least when Community with a big “C” becomes what it is.

    Thanks, too, for joining us. But you should be aware that this part of America is bourbon country. 🙂

    -Elizabeth

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