“Community” is a word most people I know, including myself, like to use a lot. We talk frequently about “building community,” for example, and refer to various activities as “community” events and organizations as “community” organizations. The trick is that there’s a slipperiness about the word itself. It can mean anything from a very loosely connected group of people to a group so tightly organized that it can rightfully be called a cult. In between, there are all manner and shapes of community with very different characteristics.
The most important distinction — and one that is often ignored — is that between a community in the literal and narrow sense of a group of people who have something in common (e.g. where they live, similar artistic interests, etc.) and community in the deeper sense of a group of people who not only share something in common but also share an empathic connection to each other that significantly impacts their emotions and behavior.
I find this slippage very unfortunate. We speak all too glibly about community — often implying that we mean community in the deeper sense — when, in reality, we are part of something with much looser ties and very little real empathic connection between members of the community.
Let me pause for a moment to explain what I mean by “an empathic connection between members of the community.” Empathy is the human capacity to feel what another person is feeling, to experience what they are experiencing. It goes beyond a cognitive, factual understanding of the other person’s experience, to being able to feel in oneself what the other experiences. It also goes beyond sympathizing with another: It is not merely a matter of recognizing another person’s situation and being responsive to that situation. When one is empathetic, one senses the other’s feelings so clearly that it is very close to having those feelings oneself.
It is possible, I suppose to be overly empathic: to experiences another’s world so intensely that one looses perspective, no longer distinguishing between the other person and oneself, no longer to be truly compassionate because one has lost any sense of being a separate, autonomous individual. But far more often we fall short of legitimate empathy, frequently covering our inability to connect with the other’s experience by the pretense of caring; we show the symbols and language of caring, but lack an internal sense of what it feels like to be the other person.
In my experience, there are a few dynamics that stand in the way of the development of community in the deeper sense of shared empathic experience. The first is the loose use of the term that I refer to at the beginning of this article. The phenomenon is familiar enough that it’s the subject of sitcoms and comic strips: the pseudo-community of social media. It’s unnecessary to belabor the point that having 246 “friends” on Facebook, or 362 “followers” on Twitter or Snapchat is not the same as having even one really caring friend in real life, let alone being part of a community that can share your most intimate hopes and fears, that will be there for you when you need it the most. Yes, social media facilitates connecting to people, from long lost friends to new acquaintances, who would have likely never been part of one’s life again. That can be a very fine thing. If, however, these interactions serve to substitute for intimacy, they may temporarily paper over an enduring sense of being alone in the world.
Organizations that promulgate “community” as a means to justify their own existence also risk substituting a thin veneer of community for significant empathic human interaction. I have been personally involved in numerous situations where the word community has been tossed around liberally, but where the underlying connections between people are thin. This may rear its head in a crucial situation where individual needs conflict with the “community” goal. Suddenly everyone goes off in a different direction, revealing the “sense of community” previously felt was only a temporarily shared special interest. Sometimes it works the opposite way: a “community” forms in relation to a particular crisis, but dissipates or devolves into internal conflict once the crisis passes. As with the “virtual communities” spawned by the internet, the problem is that a rather loose set of connections is being asked to do the heavy lifting of a community in the higher sense of a set of people deeply committed to each other through significant emotional ties and a deep sense of shared meaning.
At the other end of the spectrum are “communities” that border on or are indistinguishable from cults. In such groups, shared goals, deep commitment, and significant empathic connections are often indeed present, but they are overshadowed by dynamics that drastically undermine individual autonomy. Once this happens, one can no longer say that individuals are relating empathically to each other, because all are subsumed by a group mentality that prohibits independence. Without independence, “commitment” changes its meaning: it becomes an unhealthy subservience, a form of self-abnegation. Empathy becomes meaningless because the individual no longer exists as a free agent. Where leadership of a group becomes so concentrated and so ubiquitous and authoritarian in its exercise that members no longer function autonomously, they can no longer be said to be acting out of communal spirit or empathic connection, but are merely heeding a power relationship from which they cannot free themselves.
So, when we talk about “building community,” we’d be well advised to ask ourselves what we mean. Community, in the full sense of a group of people committed to a shared goal and sharing a significant empathic connection to each other but devoid of hero worship or dictatorial control is worth struggling for, if not easily achieved.