I have been reflecting on the modern world and it’s impact on our sense of community.
Community used to be something that was a natural and intrinsic part of society. During ancient times our instincts drove us to be around others and we formed tribes. Being part of a tribe is what enabled us to survive as a species. We needed one another for protection, to build shelter and to obtain food. Whilst in modern society we do not face the same challenges as the ancient humans did, to not be be part of a community and to feel isolated appears to be a large contributing factor for poor mental health.
Before the industrial revolution people were born, lived and died within their close knit communities. People grew up together and knew each other their whole lives. Religion often played an important role in community too, but from the 16th century science became more prominent and many people started to lose their connection with the more spiritual aspects of themselves and the support that organised religion gave them. Transport improved, it was easier to travel and move away from the location in which we were born. Families and friends moved from where they grew up to obtain better jobs. As a society we became more segregated, individualized and more lonely.
I believe that some of the problems faced in the modern world are due to this lack of community. It is a time where jobs are unstable, people are forced to move to keep ahead of the game and may end up many miles away from those they know and love. This lack of community can bring about loneliness, lack of purpose and low self esteem. Loneliness is a serious issue and is often cited as one of the largest cause of premature death.
I remember growing up in a little village. It had local village shops where the store owners knew their customers by name. I spend my early years with the same school friends and I knew all my neighbours. My next door neighbour became Santa at the local village hall every year, there were local fundraisers and village fetes that brought the local residents together. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, support and common purpose.
I moved from this village at the age of 12 to a larger town. It was a culture shock to go from being part of a community to a more impersonal world of a bigger town. I started a new school where friendships had already being formed, neighbours kept themselves to themselves and there was very little in the way of community projects. Whereas I’d once had community I now lost myself in books and had a much smaller network of people to interact with.
I went on to University at 19 and suddenly my social life became much richer. There were societies I joined and I met people with common interests. There were also the people on my course who I shared the same goals with.
This experience taught me that although community may no longer be on the doorstep it can still be found if I went looking for it. I had gone from village life where community was an organic and a natural occurrence, to realising that if I still wanted to feel a part of something that I would need to go looking for it. Whether that be joining groups and societies of people with common interests or enrolling on a course.
The Empty Self
There was a psychologist and a historian called Philip Cushman who coined the term ‘the empty self’. Cushman says:
It is empty [the self] in part because of the loss of family, community and tradition. It is a self that seeks the experience of being continually filled up by consuming goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners and empathic therapists in an attempt to combat the growing alienation and fragmentation of its era
This lack of sense of community, Cushman believes, leads people to try and fill this emptiness from external sources. Although some people find benign sources to try and fill this gap, others may turn to drugs & alcohol, gambling, shopping addictions, self harm, and at the worse end of the spectrum even to suicide.
There have been many incredible developments and discoveries made throughout the modern age. We have far better medical care, appliances that make life more convenient and incredible technological advancements. Yet with such progress has come a move away from a sense of community. Quite often it is easier to send a text message or an email someone than it is to have an actual conversation. As I mentioned earlier, better transport means we no longer stay within the communities in which we are raised. Whilst advancements have improved things for many of us, it begs the question on how the issue of increased individualisation and loneliness can be improved. Whilst not a complete solution to our community crisis, we are slowly seeing things start to shift.
Shifts towards encouraging community
I recently heard that GP’s are now prescribing attending parkrun for depression. Parkrun is a weekly walking/running event that takes place at 9am every Saturday. Parkrun isn’t just about running or walking, it is about a community that is inclusive and encourages all levels of fitness. Durham has a parkrun and there are many others within the local area. Click here if you wanted to know more about parkrun.
I was in a cafe recently that had a table in the centre of the room. This table was for people who were on their own but wanted to chat to others.I wish this was implemented in more cafes and public places.
There are now befriending services for the elderly through organisations such as Silver Line and Age Concern.
The internet means it is easier to find groups and societies to bring people together though common interests.
Whilst community used to be something that was there for us from the moment we were born, it is now something that has to be sort out. This is not always an easy task, especially for anyone who experiences social anxiety. The idea of joining a new group for some can just seem too overwhelming.
Counselling might be helpful for those who feel isolated or empty to find a new direction or gain confidence to engage in social situations.
If you are impacted by loneliness, feeling unfulfilled or experience difficulties in social situations and would like help with this please contact me to arrange an initial appointment.
Cushman, P. (1990). Why the self is empty: Toward a historically situated psychology. American Psychologist, 45(5), 599-611.