What Is It That Makes A Community A Community?

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Friday, 6.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

There is but one Church in which men find salvation, just as outside the ark of Noah it was not possible for anyone to be saved. – Thomas Aquinas

If you had to build an ark and save all that was important, but only had a certain amount of space, who and what would you take with you?

Your immediate family is probably an easy choice. Your parents? Grandchildren? Animals? If you were required to. How about extended family? Neighbors? People from further down the street? From the next village?

Noah’s ark is an apt image for the rushed construction of a community, a bringing together of people and creatures that would not normally be together. The have to live together for a while, follow rules and try and survive the flood that washes over them. And when it’s all done they disperse across the world when released from the walls of their boat.

The single, overriding characteristic of the ark metaphor is that there are two places to be inside the ark or outside it. If you’re inside, you’re safe. If you’re outside, you don’t matter.

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The origin of the word community lies in the concept of having something in common with others, where you are, perhaps, what you have, what you care about, or how you think about things. You can be born into a community or join it, with or without a choice in the matter. You experience can be good or bad, pleasurable or horrifying. There is nothing that says a community has to be good or right or fair. All that needs to happen for a community to exist is that its members have something in common with each other.

But what we’re interested in is precisely those value judgments that help us understand what good community is and what bad community is and how to tell the difference. There are communities everywhere we look, thriving ones and struggling ones. You have communities that have endured over centuries and others that come together for an evening. What is it that makes communities viable and productive and how do you tell the difference between one that looks wealthy and prosperous on the outside but is rotting away on the inside and one that is struggling to survive but that contains the essential elements that will help it live, if it can just survive the flood washing over it right now.

The thing about community, then, is that its essential quality is dynamism, renewal and rebirth. It is alive. Unless it’s not, in which case it’s no longer a community. It’s a memory, consigned to history. It’s difficult not to think about a community as an organism, as a living thing. And living things can be vital and healthy or sick and diseased. At the same time, if one that looks at communities from a social point of view rather than a biological or economic one, which makes no judgment other than suggesting the fittest survive, then should we try and ensure all communities survive, even “bad” ones?

So far, all we have are questions and perhaps we need to set some ground rules before we explore too much further. The purpose of this book is to help us engage with the world around us in a way that is “good”. But what does that mean? It’s very hard to define good. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what we think of as bad. But it always comes down to a point of view. For example, is an influencer who reaches millions of people and tells them how to live doing a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your point of view, and some people will see what’s going on as empowering and others will see the same thing as degrading or controlling. When you look at the world out there what should you aspire to be? What are the images most of us see, how does that influence the aspirations we have and what is the reality we are likely to face? Are there fundamental principles that can help explain what goes on in the situations we see out there.

As someone who runs a business or is a creative professional do you have a right to a living wage or do you have to fit into the way the world works? Is there room for individual freedom and self expression or do you have to comply with the prevailing view or be punished for stepping out? After all, you can’t always rely on a god to come along and help you. Sometimes you have to help yourself. But how should you go about doing that?

It’s not easy finding a place to stand and start thinking about these things. Should we look at the research and try and understand what academics mean when they use big words and design research studies and write papers hidden behind paywalls? Or should we look at the material that’s out there. Should we look at specific examples of how people did what they did or is that a waste of time. After all, you hear about someone because they’re famous. But are they famous for being well known or is there something they did that, if you do it too, you can also be famous? Every time. Or should we create models of how things might work and test them on our own lives?

I think perhaps we need to start with ourselves. We all know how we live, what we’ve experienced and how we approach the world. We’re less aware of how others do this and it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that it’s all down to them. We often excuse our mistakes because we see all the factors that led to the decisions we made but with others it’s very tempting to see it as down to individual choices.

And maybe what I do need to do is start with an example, a community without which I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I do right now. A community with which I should really engage a lot more because of all that I have received from it. A community that is perhaps the exact opposite of the ark, where the purpose is not to save those who deserve to, or who can afford to be saved but to give each person the freedom they ought to have. One that follows a model that looks a little more like this.

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But, to be fair, you could argue it either way, as always.

But I’ll start with that tomorrow.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

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