Community As Corrective
“What is The Good Life?” I was asked with a video camera pointed at my face.
I talked about some of the things I have written about here, like balance: striving for balance between my introverted self and my extraverted self, between my mind, body and spirit, between my personal/private life and professional/public life. I talked about living fully in the present moment and fully engaging in the stage of life I am currently in, not wishing away moments or pining for the past. That was it. That was all the time I was given.
Hours later, I was still thinking about what was captured on video. What bothered me was what I didn’t say. My answer was self-centered. The Good Life was individual, personal self-improvement. My me-focused answer was par for the course. An eighth grader succinctly stated the American Dream as The Good Life: “I want to graduate college, get a good job, have my own house, and raise kids to be successful.” A man in his seventies talked about striving in his life to achieve his goals of having a successful career and family.
What is The Good Life?
I have been musing a lot about what role the American Dream plays in our quest for The Good Life. I’m wondering how much of our lives we spend building the life we dreamed of as a kid, how little we knew about what we should be dreaming about as kids, and how much of our adult happiness depends on those dreams coming true. I’m wondering if our dreams push us toward inward facing families, and if we see facing outward to think about community as getting in the way, or slowing down the process of achieving our goals.
Darwin tells us that natural selection operates on the individual level and drives these feelings. I pass my genes on to my kids. It’s easy to fall into the trap of caring so much about my immediate family that I do not look further to the health of my community. With a three-month-old baby, I do feel this way at times. There is a strong element of survival, that turning inward to protect my child has an undeniable biological element to it. I love my child so fiercely that it can be consuming. At the end of the day, I think, “Well, I kept this human being alive today. That’s probably enough.” We take care of our own, and we define our own thinly.
It could be argued that personal work is a good place to start in finding The Good Life, but I don’t believe it is the place to end. I believe, deep down, that my own joy and wellbeing is tied up in the joy and wellbeing of all people. Darwin would agree. Darwin saw that civilization works on the tribal level. Groups of people who work together and value the common good outlive groups of people who work as isolated individuals. One man might not be able to successfully hunt a predator, but a group of people can. Community matters for our own good, personally and collectively.
Jonathan Sacks reminds us, “The best way of turning a diverse, disconnected group into a team is to get them to build something together. We develop virtue, strength of character, and a commitment to the common good in community. Community is local. It is society with a human face. It is not government. It is not the people we pay to look after the welfare of others. It is the work we do ourselves, together.” I have seen it on sports teams, in classrooms, at church, in community organizing and in travel groups. Community is an antidote for individualism.
What is The Good Life?
What I didn’t say is still rattling around in my brain. I’m taking it as a gentle invitation to take emerging baby steps back into my community, to re-engage and see how everybody else is doing.