What Makes a Community?

imageMy most intense experience of community was college dorm life. At the University of Notre Dame, all dorms are single-sex and students have the opportunity to spend their entire undergraduate careers in the same building. Reflecting back on those years, I recognize six elements that I propose are foundational to community:

  • Need:   As freshmen, we all came in with the basic need for friendship. We were all equally anchorless, and this need provided an openness to sharing meals, starting up a conversation, and forming relationships with the many strangers we encountered on campus. I find it fascinating that in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, hell is described as a place where you can have whatever you want, but because there is no scarcity – and therefore no need to unite neighbors – there’s no community and each soul is hopelessly alone. By our very humanity, we have built in needs. It is these needs that keep us searching and striving, and lead us to encounter, learn from, collaborate with and follow one another. It is this need that drives us out of ourselves and into society, to seek what it is we are lacking.
  • Gift: If need is the question, then gift is the answer. As new freshmen in Alumni Hall, it did not take us long to discover each individual’s different gifts and talents. From sports to academics, from singing and dancing to faith, each person brought his own unique set of strengths to the table to fit the many needs of our dorm. Our economy brings needs and gifts together in much the same way. Engineers can bring water to dry places, a husband and wife can create a home of love and belonging, a stranger can provide a homeless man a meal, and the homeless man can provide the stranger the opportunity to serve God. One of my favorite philosophers, Peter Maurin, recognized this relationship when he said we should be go-givers, not go-getters.
  • Place: Freshmen rooms in the dorm were tiny, so we couldn’t help but expand into the hallways. There we met the occupants of other rooms, saw students as they went in and out of the building, and shared our lives. As we progressed in seniority our room picks improved, becoming much larger and more comfortable. But with increased space came the increased tendency to hang out in our own rooms. The difference was striking; the freshmen floors were bustling and alive, while the upperclassman hallways were all closed doors and privacy. I proposed to my friends our senior year that we take the smallest rooms in the dorm to recreate that freshman-esque community but no one else thought it was a such good idea! Yet it is clear that place matters, specifically the availability of common space. A community needs somewhere for members to meet each other.
  • Time: When it came to forming real friendships, time was necessary to move us from surface-level introductions to deeper relationships. We entered the dorm experience at the same time and journeyed through the sophomore, junior and senior stages as a cohort. Different years presented different needs as we went from trying to figure out what to major in to trying to land full-time employment. Similarly, even when gift, need and space are brought together, true community can only take place over time. An airport terminal may be full of talented, needy people in a common space but no authentic community will develop there. Developing a community is similar to a plant developing roots – in the right conditions over time, the roots grow stronger and deeper, allowing it to weather storms and making it very difficult to be transplanted.
  • Freedom & Purpose: It became evident living in the dorm that it’s not enough simply to throw random people all in the same stage of life together in a building in order to create friendships. Friendship and community must be freely chosen, and at any point individuals need to feel free to walk away if life takes them in another direction. It is because the person is free to leave that the community is strong because all those who stay do so for a reason. That reason is the community’s purpose, its shared goal. We encountered so many new people that freshman year, but in the end it was those with whom we shared something deeper that we became the closest to.

To develop a community-based model of economics, we will need to explore how these foundational elements interact with one another and affect the distribution of scare resources. Our current economic system’s focus on supply and demand has made it very efficient at making and distributing products.  Yet the task at hand is to move towards a human dignity driven economic system for which community itself is the foundation.

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Community?

  1. Certainly one of the best written and insightful pieces I have read about this subject. One element that was missing was the obvious comparison to mixed sex dorms and the fundamental differences in that experience. Having graduated the very year that co-habitation became possible at ND, I have heard lots of stories but have always wondered if the sexual tension brought any real meaning to the dorm experience other than missed expectations, defeat and excess.

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  2. I had to laugh when you suggested moving as seniors back to freshman rooms – my roommate and I did! In advance of our senior year in Alumni Hall (’83-’84), my roommate forgot to hand in his housing form. Appeals to Fr. Heppen, himself an Alumni resident, availed nothing. So rather than use my high pick for a single, or room with others and leave my roommate on his own, I fell back and used his pick. While we could have done somewhat better, we said What the hell and returned to our original room in S*** Alley (ahem, “Via Feces”). Moral of the story: it’s better to have a good roommate than a good room.

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  3. I like how you wove in C.S. Lewis’s version of hell–a place of abundance and yet no satisfaction. I think it would be interesting to explore this metaphor played out through the lens of “gift” versus “get” economy in the present-day.

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