I spent the afternoon with some of our neighbors because another of our neighbors organized an Easter Egg hunt in their backyard. Two of the families had moved to the block in the last year and I hadn’t met them yet, and another family lives adjacent to us but I hadn’t spoken to them in about two years.
It got me thinking about the fact that they live within 100 meters of us, yet it may as well be miles or continents. None of us are actively avoiding each other and our interactions are always pleasant, so I wondered: why is it that we so rarely see each other even though we’re in such close proximity? (Besides the givens of us all being busy with careers and their having their hands full with kids.)
The simplest answer is that we don’t have a default social gathering that unites us.
Our interactions are largely based on being invited to the gatherings each family orchestrates once or twice a year. The neighbors with kids all see each other much more frequently because they bump into each other at the park down the street, and they’ll probably see each other more in the years to come as the toddlers they have now will soon be running back and forth between their houses. But the ad hoc interactions of a couple of families is different from a mass gathering of neighboring families.
By “default social gathering,” I mean something like the role that church plays for many people and that used to be much more woven into our culture. It is a default because everyone knows where, when, and why it happens. Furthermore, the main event is organized by the clergy and church officials, so all people have to do is dress and show up (somewhat) on time. Each church and community has different norms about what happens after the formal religious ceremony, but the point for our purposes here is that church gives people a very easy way to get together.
I think here’s where we creative people often find ourselves in a bind. By no means am I saying that creative people are unfaithful or unspiritual — quite the contrary — rather, I’m saying that our tendency to have unconventional ways of thinking puts us at odds with old or mainstream traditions. We tend to have an anti-organization streak as well, which means that the whole community religious experience can be a hard pill to swallow. (Note that I am using “religious” in its strict sense here, distinct from faith, spirituality, or divine connection.)
Though church is not the only social structure that provides a default social gathering, it’s probably the strongest due to both its commonality and the fact that it unites people who have very similar values. The challenge is that these social structures are either weakening or disappearing quickly. Robert Putnam’s seminal Bowling Alone and the books that have followed do a great job of documenting the decline of these social structures and the fallout from it.
What’s also well documented in Putnam’s work is that we are happiest and healthiest in social structures. Most of us don’t do well in isolation, and what so many of the creative people I talk to every week report is that they’re lonely — even when they live in NYC, LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Miami, Chicago, and the other major hubs of creative people right next door to them.
Of course, Putnam’s work only validates Aristotle’s pre-scientific assertion that “man is a political creature,” by which he meant that we are creatures who live in communities. He believed it was impossible for us to flourish outside of communities; while I’m not absolutely certain that it’s impossible, it’s at least really challenging to thrive outside of a community. (Would you choose to live outside of a community even if you got everything else you wanted?)
Every social structure was built by someone at some time, though. Our neighbors didn’t just randomly congregate in a backyard – we congregated in Ron and Emily’s backyard because they reached out to each one of us and invited us to it. All it took was a little leadership and initiative, and we showed up because we’re hard- and soft-wired to want to be in community.
All it ever takes is a little leadership and initiative. If there’s not a social structure that resonates with you, you’re not resigned to live outside of a community. It’s up to each of us to build, cultivate, and maintain the communities that enable our interdependent thriving. And by “us” here, I mean you just as much as I mean me.
It may be a lot of work just to hang out with people you care about on a Sunday afternoon, but it’s worth it and a lot better than the “easy” alternatives.