A Real Solution

For all the political talk about what ails our society and how our “leaders” in Washington can fix it, I think that Peter Lovenheim has identified one real solution that can put everything back into perspective – recapturing the meaning of “neighbor.” He asks this very important question that I’d like to take a stab at answering.

Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?

My first guess is that this is a matter of scarce resources (time) becoming spread too thin. Because we can stay connected with our college buddies when they are spread around the country we spend less time getting to know the neighbors who may not share any interests with us. When it was more cost prohibitive to keep regular contact with our old friends we were more likely to reach out to the neighbors where we could afford to build the relationships. In fact, I think that we can safely say that prior to easy travel we had the added incentive to build neighbor relations because there was also a higher chance that we were staying closer to home and so our neighbors were likely to have history or family connections with us.

I would not argue that this is acceptable. In fact, I think that this tendency toward disconnection on the local level feeds into our growing propensity to seek solutions to all our problems on a large scale. The less we identify with our local neighborhood the less likely we are to think about concerns on a local level. The more we think in terms of national problems the more we insist and accept the erosion of liberty that almost universally follows when we try to address concerns (rightly or wrongly) on a national scale.

Does anyone else have perspectives to round out my thinking?

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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Comments

16 Responses to A Real Solution

  1. Sorry to barge in without any precedent. I’ve been subscribed to your blog for a long while, but I haven’t commented. These are interesting questions. I wrote an article some time ago that might be related:

    On the Spiritual Danger of Virtual Communities
    http://www.sixteensmallstones.org/on-the-spiritual-danger-of-virtual-communities

    In a nutshell, based on the writings of G.K. Chesterton, I suggest that virtual communities can be a form of misanthropic escape from our real neighbors and that escapism of this sort is a form of elitist that is resists the injunction the real benefits of trying to love our neighbors, who are the actually sample of humanity God has given to us to love.

    Let me know what you think,

  2. David says:

    Max,

    I remember that post of yours and I found it very insightful. In fact, I think that might illustrate a flaw in the idea that we can easily “create community anywhere.” We can create something that we call a community, but a virtual community is probably not directly comparable to a neighborhood community.

  3. Jesse Harris says:

    Certainly technology can and is being leveraged to rebuild the connection to neighbors. For example, the Traverse Mountain community in Lehi has a forum setup just for residents. Taking this kind of hyperlocal approach can quickly get us back in touch with our neighbors, especially as the digital divide closes.

  4. David says:

    Jesse,

    Thanks for pointing that out. Technology need not be our enemy, but we do have to recognize and value the potential that is locked in our neighborhood communities rather than being blinded by the ability to make “communities” that are not bound by time or location. If we make the mistake that virtual communities are equal with local communities our perspective is likely to be thrown out of balance.

  5. Jesse Harris says:

    Tech can’t be a substitution for interaction, but a way to facilitate it. No social issue can be solved with software.

  6. David says:

    Perfectly said Jesse.

  7. Josh says:

    In “In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government,” Charles Murray argues that government severs the “tendrils of community” by providing administrative solutions to what are actually community problems. According to Murray, communities exist for a purpose and when the government fills that purpose, communities are less likely to form or remain strong.

    Murray says that people tend to ask themselves “What will happen if I don’t?” before they reach out to their neighbors. In other words, “People tend not to do a chore when someone else will do it for them.”

    Person 1: Do you want to watch T.V. or feed the hungry?
    Person 2: I’m tired. What will happen if I don’t?
    Person 1: I will probably do it.
    Person 2: You go then.

    Murray points out that government spending tends to crowd out philanthropic spending. When government spends more on welfare programs, philanthropic donations tend to decrease and vice versa.

    Maybe community relationships are not as strong as they could be because the government is taking over a role that communities once filled. If so, I think that has some very undesirable side effects.

  8. Reach Upward says:

    Throughout most of the history of this world people were much more involved with their close neighbors because they were economically dependent upon them and because they were closely related to most of the people in their neighborhood. Others came to the neighborhood because they had developed close friendships or economic dependencies with someone in the neighborhood, but within a generation they also became related as children married into the clan.

    Today people maintain close connections with those upon whom they are economically dependent, their own economic dependents, their close relatives, and their close friends. The main difference is that the extended order in which we live no longer requires that these people live in the immediate vicinity of each other. This allows for far more individual choice in such matters.

    We may also join social communities containing people with common interests. This kind of thing was much more difficult in the days of limited transportation and communication.

    The upshot is that we might know well people living on the other side of the globe while not even knowing the names of the people next door. This is not actually terribly different than it was in the past. It’s just that back then people were not placed in close proximity to others with whom they shared no economic, familial, or interest ties. These people still existed, but it didn’t matter unless they came into your space.

    Humans seem to have a natural tendency to yearn for the cohesiveness and shared interests of tribalism. They see our extended society as a threat to that kind of interdependency. But they also tend overlook the downsides of such communalism. This yearning is the source of many of our politically-driven social programs.

    In reality, I think that the sky is not falling with respect to being neighbors. If anything, we are far more concerned about people with whom we share no ties other than residential proximity than were the people of the past with respect to people with whom they shared no ties.

  9. So the question appears to be how much of a role physical proximity does and should play in human relationships. Many humans rely a lot on physical interaction for happiness. Letters, emails, phone calls, and chats really aren’t a proper substitute for presence.

    Consider a child. In fact, consider one of mine. When he is hurt or upset, what does he do? Reach for Mommy or Daddy. While being held certainly doesn’t make the cut heal faster (for example), the act of being held says that someone cares.

    A lot of communication is non-verbal. The aforementioned communication-at-a-distance methods provide limited capacity to carry this non-verbal communication. This has two likely results: one, communication must be more carefully crafted — problematic in real-time communication methods like telephone and chat — and/or two, more miscommunications, misunderstandings, and emotional distance results.

    Also, while long-distance relationships can provide some ongoing friendships, there are a number of relationship-building activities that cannot take place at a distance. Consider the historical practice of barn-raisings: people in a community get together to build a structure, often for the benefit of a single individual or family. All who participate have a sense of ownership in the community and in the success of the family for whom they built the barn. The family for whom the barn was built feels indebted to the greater community for their help.

    We have recently experienced something similar to this in our household. We are finishing our basement. We have borrowed every power tool and a number of unpowered tools from family who live in the local area. Many people in the family and some local friends have also contributed their knowledge and labor. While friends across the nation and the state could provide emotional support and perhaps some knowledge, they can’t conveniently provide demonstrations or tools. So they are left out of this kind of relationship building.

    On the other hand, given modern technology, perfect strangers can provide demonstrations of how to do things as they do them. For example, we watched several freely-provided online videos of how to hang a door before attempting to do it ourselves. Alas, the result wasn’t as good as having someone in our home working alongside us as we figured out how to get the thing to hang straight in three simultaneous dimensions, but it was better than nothing. However, I don’t pretend to have any kind of a relationship with the authors and producers of the videos. While the video provided instruction, it didn’t provide interaction.

    So, while there are benefits to the ability to keep in touch when you can’t actually touch, I think there is a loss in both the sense of community and its strength.

  10. David says:

    Josh,

    You bring up some good points from Murray. I’ll have to look at “In Pursuit.”

    Reach,

    We should not really be surprised that there are plusses as well as minuses to our current social situations. Am I correct in my perception that you think the plusses might outweigh the minuses?

    Jared,

    I think that’s a very good example of the different advantages of both geographically independent interaction that we have access to as well as the advantages that are afforded by geographic co-location.

  11. Reach Upward says:

    I think that if the pluses didn’t outweigh the minuses our current societal structure would not exist as it does.

    Over the past two centuries, almost every effort to implement communal relationships in modern societies has failed. Time after time, communal structures have given way to the norm of extended society. The communal structures that survive all have considerable problems — problems so great that the vast majority of us can’t even think about going there. Consider the FLDS culture, for example.

    In less modern societies, communalism and tribalism create extreme problems. For all of the social connectivity provided, individual problems become community political issues. Appeal to the tribal authority becomes the norm, so that gaining political power becomes even more important than it is in modern societies. Inter-tribal strife and even small-scale genocide are some of the most common traits of this type of structure.

    Jared makes a very good point about the importance of face-to-face human interaction. But there is no reason that we cannot develop relationships that provide for this need. My handyman brother-in-law in Texas can’t feasibly come and help me drywall the basement, but I do know a couple of handy guys from church that will gladly help me.

    In reality, I am personally quite well acquainted with everyone in my neighborhood, except for the couple that chooses to be reclusive and two families on the other side of the block that recently moved in.

    There are things neighbors can do to get to know each other. For years it has been common for neighbors to drop off small gifts at Christmas time. This year, one neighbor hosted a party in the cul-de-sac where we were all invited to bring food, clothing, and money donations for the poor in lieu of neighbor gifts. We sat around a fire in the December cold, roasting marshmallows, drinking hot chocolate, and chatting with each other. Some chose not to participate, but many did. I’m not sure how you do something like that in an apartment building in downtown New York, but I’m sure that ingenious people could think of something.

  12. David says:

    You make some good points Reach.

    I like the sound of your neighborhood. I think that those activities, such as the occasional neighborhood party, which help to bring people together and help them feel connected with their neighbors are very valuable.

    Do you mind if I ask how long you have lived in your current neighborhood?

  13. Reach Upward says:

    Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I’ve been out of the loop a bit. We have lived in this neighborhood for nearly 20 years. Our subdivision went up over a six-year period. Some of the original homeowners still live here, but many homes have turned over one or more times. We try to make newcomers feel accepted. Adjacent to our subdivision are homes of people that descended from the original 19th Century settlers. These people have always gone to great lengths to welcome newbies. While some people find that they don’t like living next to a dairy farm, it’s really a wonderful place to live. Not only is it beautiful, but the people here make it great.

  14. David says:

    I basically expected a situation something like that. A community that attracts residents to live there for decades would be one where the meaning of neighbor has been preserved.

    Would I be right in guessing that the majority of people who leave your neighborhood leave to a rest home, a funeral parlor, or because they have grown up and left to start their own household.

    I would love to live in a place like that, but I find that there are not many homes for sale in those areas.

  15. Reach Upward says:

    Actually, the majority of people move out to move up to something bigger and better. We thought about that at one time, but ultimately decided we didn’t want to do it.

    A few stay to the end, but we really haven’t had that many funerals in the area.

    A few have moved after becoming empty nesters. They are often looking for a different layout to meet their needs. Multi-level splits were all the rage when our subdivision was going up, and many older people no longer want to deal with the constant need to go up and down the stairs.

    A few families have opted to build new homes in the neighborhood.

    My parents’ neighborhood is more like the one you describe. Now that Dad has passed, Mom knows that her 1962 rambler really doesn’t meet her needs, but she dislikes the idea of moving out of her neighborhood even more.

  16. David says:

    I’m very surprised to hear that. How long do people usually stay before moving “up to something bigger and better?”

    (I might want to come up and see your neighborhood sometime to try and figure out what I might be missing in my assumptions regarding neighborhood stability.)

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