October 25, 2016

The Power of Community

By Peggy McDonagh

Recently, I listened to an interview on CBC One’s “The Current” with Sebastian Junger, an award-winning author and journalist—a war veteran of Afghanistan who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger writes about how a community is a rare and precious thing in modern society and what tribal societies, war and catastrophes teach us about the value and significance of the role of community in curtailing mental illness and loneliness.

Some weeks ago I met with some of the volunteers of the Calgary-based ‘Inn from the Cold’ (INFC) program that provides shelter for families in need and has recently closed many of its Inns being run in churches and community halls. As I listened to stories of how important this program had been for them, I heard repeatedly how INFC connected them with a wide variety of people who provided a sense of purpose, fulfilment and joy.

In his article “All the Lonely People,” Andre Picard, health reporter and columnist at the Globe and Mail, tells of a hidden epidemic of loneliness and estimates that six million Canadians live in isolation. In his research he has found that “study after study delivers grim prognosis: loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day; having no friends may increase the risk of premature death; social isolation is twice as deadly as obesity and hikes the risks of dementia by sixty-five per cent.” Isolation, so it appears, can be detrimental to both our mental and physical well-being.

I am involved in faith communities, so I appreciate the importance of community, but I have wondered lately if we truly know the value and significance of community in our society.

Junger says that people are created for community and not for individualism. He teaches that European emigrants to the Americas “butted up against three thousand miles of howling wilderness populated by Stone-Age tribes.” He explores the rise of the Americas through the wars between the Europeans and First Nation peoples and reveals something quite telling.

When native persons were captured, it was almost impossible to keep them in captivity or assimilate them into European life. They often escaped and returned to their tribes. More compelling is that when Europeans—mostly men—were captured, they chose to integrate themselves into tribal life. Junger says that they did so because it held greater appeal than the growing towns and isolated farming communities. Many Europeans came to value the closeness of the community and the importance of sharing responsibility and chores. Everyone had a part to fulfil in order for the tribe to survive, and that created a sense of purpose and value.

“The question for Western society,” writes Junger, “isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing—it seems obvious on the face of it—but why Western society is so unappealing.” He observes that “a person living in a modern city can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously, alone.”

According to Junger’s findings, “modern society— despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history.”

It appears that the more integrated we become with no real community attachments to give purpose or to connect us to our deeper spiritual essence, the greater the rise of mental illness, substance abuse and violence. Essayist Wendell Berry in The Art of Commonplace, writes, “People use drugs, legal and illegal because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbours… We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”

There is little doubt that many people are stressed, socially-isolated, sedentary, and lonely, conditions that can lead to serious physical and mental consequences. Our environment plays a powerful role in our sense of physical and mental well-being, and isolation can create a variety of health problems. Similarly, being in a community where one finds purpose and value creates and sustains physical and mental health.

Most remarkable in Junger’s book is what he writes about the tremendous significance of community during wars and environmental and economic catastrophes. It appears that when society breaks down people come together. It surprised psychologists who studied how people acted during great disasters like Hurricane Katrina, WWII, or the felling of the Twin Towers that in calamitous situations, people responded immediately, according to Junger, “without ties of friendship and economics, with no plans at all as to what to do—and went to work.”

Psychologists have also observed that catastrophes change people. For example, crime rates fell after Hurricane Katrina. One young girl named Ahme spoke of how all the people in her bomb shelter during the war in Sarajevo became like family. She said, “We were family and to be honest it was [a] kind of liberation. The love we shared was enormous.”

Research into the actions of people during wars or catastrophes seems to show that when people have a purpose in life and contribute toward some good, individualism disappears and loneliness and mental stress decline. In her autobiography A Mother’s Reckoning, Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Sue Klebold writes a profoundly enlightening and moving account of her journey after the suicide of her son Dylan and his destructive contribution to the Columbine shootings sixteen years ago. She says that what saved her life was being with others in supportive, caring communities.

I believe that community and connection can, in part, prevent the systemic individualism that leads to isolation, loneliness and even death. Seniors, retirees, young people, survivors of trauma, the poor, immigrants, refugees, those with disabilities and those struggling with mental illnesses are some of the most isolated and lonely people in our population. As Picard notes we live in a society in which we are more connected than ever before, yet where more and more people are adrift. We need to make our way back to connecting in community, reaching out and getting involved.

It seems to me that when people move beyond small self-isolated, lonely realities, beyond computers and mobile devices and into active, connecting communities, something spiritual occurs in the move from a deep place of desperation, a need for support and love to a desire to help others. Belonging and love are powerful connectors; and when these are present, lives are changed. Belonging and sharing one’s time and energy enable us to respond to the needs of others and the larger community. In so doing we may claim life-giving benefits of community and well-being.

For the sake of your own well-being, I invite you to consider how you connect with others. In what ways do you or can you move beyond the confines of your small place in the world and be more involved and engaged? How are you belonging and loving in a world so desperate for acceptance, inclusion, kindness, understanding—and above all, compassion?

For more posts like these, visit the Emotional Wellness page.