At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic really took the entire world by storm, NPR released an article entitled “Most Americans Are Lonely, And Our Workplace Culture May Not Be Helping”. According to their sources, loneliness had a relatively large leap from 2018 to 2019; this leap encompassed people from all backgrounds, though some groups like women and Boomers were less lonely than men and Gen Zers (paras. 7&9). I decided to look this up after listening to Darcy Dixon’s TED Talk “Gen Z: How a Generation Defined a Pandemic” because she mentions the amount of loneliness experienced during the lockdowns. This is an important set up to a conversation about community, especially in light of the fact that isolation and loneliness is a long standing problem we’ve had long before the pandemic.
Now, I realize that the experience of loneliness during the pandemic really would need to be considered an outlier in studies of loneliness because it was such a unique experience of isolation. But, as the NPR article points out, loneliness has been on the rise for a while now with factors such as social media, isolation, work-life balance, and relationships with others impacting how lonely or connected we feel. Though the impacts of the pandemic must be validated and discussed, there is also a need to remember how lonely we said we were before all of this happened. Especially when there is talk of returning to ‘normal’. Dixon’s talk is significant in starting this conversation in that she is asking how are we being involved in our communities and how we can use what we learned about building new types of community when things do start to be more open and social again. The hope that I would infer from her talk is that by seeing how much our lack of community was hurting us before the pandemic, and how much it really made a difference (bad or good) during the pandemic, that we will forge ahead into a new society that cares more about building community.
As we emerge from the reign of terror that was the Trump Administration, with the severe political divides that are still present in the way that Americans interact with each other, I find I am cynical about our capability to build united communities. This is especially the case when considering the heightened feelings around the virus and people’s decisions to wear a mask or get vaccinated; and the virus is only a fraction of what we are contending with when it comes to the issues and heightened feelings of division that are present in our country. At a time when mass shootings plague our new feeds nearly every month, if not weekly (and daily at times), police brutality continues unchecked or not checked enough, and states are passing laws that are transphobic, it can be hard to know what exactly is meant by building community.
I don’t say this to be hopeless, but to simply highlight what we are up against. Obviously, these issues don’t stop people from creating community as we have seen (and as Dixon points out) in the BLM movement; but when we are talking about being part of our community, what exactly does that imply? The neighborhood we live in? The school or institution we attend? A chosen group of individuals like us? Does community have to include people I don’t agree with? What do we mean when we say we want to build community?
Asking these questions may border on the unhelpful, but the reason I think it is important to think specifically about what we mean when we say community is that the very idea suggests there are those who are outside the community, which in turn brings us back to loneliness. Who are we inviting into community and why? This is an important thing to consider specifically in the context of the university. Most schools seem to border on the homogenous at times, but the unique experience of a university is that it often brings you into contact with people who think differently from you. There is a lot of good that comes of this in that many different life experiences and approaches can create the ideas needed to create better communities. But I suppose my cynical outlook always makes me stop and wonder about the dark side of this.
The more complex side of community building makes me think back to the conversation last week that Bailey brought up around moral injury. How much moral injury are we able to take when it comes to being involved in something that may not fully align with our values or beliefs? How much should we be required to take? And maybe more importantly, how much is realistic for us to take on to build real community that critiques, holds accountable, and celebrates differences?
Again, maybe I am complicating things again or missing the point. But I think that a consideration of community and how to create it in the post-pandemic, post-Trumpian world is going to need a huge conversation on what it means to build community with people we may not completely agree with. In my mind community can’t just be about agreeing on everything and thinking the same, it has to have variety and difference so that it doesn’t become one big echo chamber. There does have to be a common goal and purpose, and there can’t be an embracing of abuse or mistreatment, but to say all difference is bad or abusive is to unravel into extremes. So the question is, what are we doing to be part of our community, yes, but it is also about defining what being part of a community really means and who we are willing to include in that and who we are choosing to exclude.