Pillars of the Community

March 31, 2022
Confidence: likely

I managed to wake myself up at 4 in the morning with an insight, and figured I should write it down. As you might imagine, I haven’t been sleeping well lately, so I don’t know whom to credit with this idea — apologies. I’ve been wandering around in a bit of an exhausted zombie funk the last few weeks, and apparently not forming as many short-term memories as one would like.

But, anyway, someone and I were talking about community, and how to find it. Erin and I often say that community is the people you don’t necessarily like, but whom you have a reason to see over and over again. For better or worse, you’re stuck with them.

This seems true, but it doesn’t feel like the whole story. For example, when you think of the term “pillar of the community,” who comes to mind? For me it’s people like small business owners, religious leaders, club organizers, mail delivery people, voracious volunteers, the bartender at the local pub, and the like.

None of these people are best differentiated by being “not necessarily liked,” though they do have a reason to be seen over and over again. But I also see Sideways Man1 on the street maybe once a week, and I wouldn’t describe him as a pillar of the community.

My interlocutor had a different idea of what it meant to be part of a community.

A community is a group of people who can depend on one another.

This lens connects the dots. The mail person does a great service for the immediate area, as does the small-pub bartender. But, not only this. We can also expect the mail person to come with great regularity; neither rain nor sleet, you know. If you’re feeling down and need a dispassionate ear, this is a service offered by the bartender. And, importantly, the bar is always open.

What about small business owners? These are people who’ve strongly invested in the area. Their personal livelihood is attached not only to the neighborhood, but, importantly, to the ongoing success of the neighborhood. Business owners are necessarily among the most-invested in their community, since putting food on the table is linked to making and maintaining relationships. When you are looking to buy something expensive, it’s probably worth buying from someone you can keep an ongoing relationship with; someone you can depend on to still be around in a year if something goes sour.

Religion likewise. I suspect the bit about “religious leader” is a cached meme in the 21st century, but places of worship definitely do their part for the community. Name a choir or support-group that doesn’t depend on a church for a place to meet. Or, Erin points out, consider langar, the Sikh practice of a “community kitchen” where anyone can show up for a meal.

On a personal level, this checks out with my experience. I felt significantly more involved in my community when I decided to meet everyone in the neighborhood. All of a sudden, I was going out of my way to talk to people I’d see on a regular basis. They didn’t depend on me for any service, but they could depend on me to say hi.

Likewise in Victoria, where I’ve been trying to put together a functional programming meetup. The local tech scene hasn’t been scratching my itches, so I figured I’d just take matters into my own hands. So, every two weeks, I’ve been hanging out at the same place at the same time. People can depend on me being there, and thus can swing by on the spur of the moment. We’re getting lots of repeat attendees, which suggests the meetup group is serving some need.

Where does this leave us? Is this an idea we can exploit to get closer to the good life? What courses of action does it suggest?

The most obvious is that if you’re feeling like you’re lacking community, put yourself in a position of being required. An easy starting point is to just regularly show up at a local meetup. Half the battle is showing up, after all. Offer to help organize things.

At an intermediate level, get involved with a group of people who create things, and then help them create that thing. It could be a choral performance, or an art exhibit or whatever. Something with a deadline. Everyone involved is going to want the thing to be as good as possible, and will thus be depending on you (and you, them) to put in as much as you can afford.

  1. You’d understand if you saw him.↩︎