I was walking out of a supermarket when a homeless man pushing a shopping cart caught my attention in the far corner of my eye. He was hard to ignore, talking – yelling, to be precise – loudly while swinging one arm wildly in the air. I looked around but no one seemed to care or simply chose to ignore him as they continued talking and texting on their phones. The homeless man tripped over his shopping cart, violently spilling all his life’s possessions onto the sidewalk: cans, bottles, black plastic bags, dirty blankets. I stopped, paralyzed, looking around for clues on how to help as I froze in horror as he just lay there on the cement. What should I do, what should we do? But everyone just casually strolled on by and kept on with their business. I tried to make eye contact: the Indian woman chatting on her mobile, the Asian man with his headphones, a lady in a flamboyant burka with dark glasses, two teens texting. No one paused or even missed a step as they kept moving right along. Oblivious. Indifferent. The homeless man finally stirred and rose, slurring his words as he cursed some imaginary enemy, blitzed out of his mind on booze or drugs. I wondered who this homeless man was and who these people were that were so numb to their surroundings they could callously pretend nothing disturbing just happened. Where were the social ties that bind us all together to offer a sense of belonging? Isn’t this my town, our town, our city? I was outraged that no one gave a damn. But the sudden epiphany then flashed that there was no common thread among us other than a zip code.
There are several concurrent factors that have led to the demise of the community: technology, immigration, the disappearing family structure, a surge in crime and drug abuse, suburban sprawl. The social fabric has gradually deteriorated, from a decline in church participation to PTA to bridge clubs to local volunteerism. Even the cheekily titled best-seller Bowling Alone cites how the once popular bowling leagues are now diminished to people bowling solo as an indicator of how we have lost connection with each other. All these disturbing trends have made us increasingly isolated and less empathetic toward our fellow citizens. We are often angrier and less willing to unite in any community action, turning inward focusing only on our individual needs. Every man for himself.
One growing trend is we are an increasingly transient, mobile society: one in five Americans moves once a year, while two in five expect to move in five years. Couple that with massive immigration, and your once stable norm of community looks completely different just a few short years later. Nearly every community has witnessed a massive shift in their racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious makeup, sometimes abruptly. The faces you see and languages you hear at your local park or supermarket have dramatically changed.
Another key shift is technology. It has granted us the license to disconnect from each other. There is no eye contact or invitation to talk with each other. The ubiquitous smart phones plug us in and tune us out, with ear buds and eyes on screens. Even in city life, as we ride on the subway or cram into elevators, we are all in our own private world, existing in our bubble. The message being I don’t care what’s out there, just don’t invade my space. If it doesn’t personally affect me, I cannot be bothered with what is happening around me. This subtle yet monumental shift insulates us as we desensitize to the needs of others, blocking many of our daily sensations. A gradual erosion hardens our edges and feeds our biases and intolerance. This all gets exacerbated when technology invades our routine that would normally require interaction within one’s community. I can now go to the supermarket, the bank, even get on an airplane without talking to a soul thanks to self-service capabilities. Heck, I can buy every thing I need on Amazon and never even leave my house! Every man for himself indeed.
This confluence of events all gets ratcheted up when we turn on the local news to get our daily dose of shootings, stabbings and stoners. Violence and drug abuse is rampant even among our safest communities. Should we really be so shocked when both guns and weed are legal in many states? There are several indicators that marijuana is a stepping stone to harder drugs like heroin. It’s a slippery slope that breeds addiction and with that comes desperation as it becomes an expensive habit. It’s not a stretch to see how the need to pay for the next fix turns to crime, smashing cars and breaking into homes. As we observe these disturbing trends, the walls heighten and mistrust grows deeper, even if only on a subconscious level.
These parallel developments all go against the grain of our humanity as we all seek connection and a desire to belong. But in this complex, dynamic new world we live in how do we find any sense of community? At our core, we are a tribal people: we take comfort in being with people that look like us, dress like us, talk like us. Those homogenous days are over as the world today is a melting pot. But our bond can resonate deeper when we share a common purpose, goal or interest. A perfect example is how a whole community rallies behind their NFL team. If you work at Google, Facebook or Apple, you observe connection that transcends race, religion or orientation due to their passion for the business model. I even see it in the gym, where people come together for their shared affinity for fitness.
So we create our own little factions of community: church, book club, golf, poker, dogs, zumba. These social groups serve us well and are microcosms of the potential of a broader collective. But it can easily break down as we try to widen the net, creating the opposite effect of exclusivity: you are either in my group and therefore I like you or you are not and I must ignore you. The reality is it is an impossible expectation to have everyone engage with each other. But the core foundation of trust, respect and tolerance must exist in order for a community to fully thrive in a harmonious environment. It starts with embracing our humanity and with this core foundation we can navigate any challenge collectively. So can we at least pretend to care when a homeless man does a face plant in broad daylight right in front of us?