Originally posted at New Society Publishers blog July 17, 2015.
Today's blog is an excerpt from Chapter Nine, "Community", from Nicole Caldwell's book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living . Summer is a great time to feel connected to our communities as we get out and about in the warmer weather. Consider some of Nicole's suggestions below to keep the good times rolling through the winter days as well.
The most central focus of our sense of belonging and safety lies in our sense of community. We seek to feel connected — whether it’s to our families, our lovers or our neighbors. And the nucleus of any community is the home — which, for many of us, is the greatest exhibit of our status and success.
Research shows that people need a few basic things in order to feel fulfilled and happy. We need work that brings us a sense of purpose, joyful experiences, a sense of autonomy and feelings of connectedness to each other, our families and homes.Yet we repeatedly isolate ourselves, experiencing a sense of aloneness even in big cities where we are surrounded by millions of people. Too many of us feel dissatisfied, limited and purposeless. Much of this comes from our modern ways of living. We bust our humps just to make rent, we exist entirely separate from nature and we spend our free time doing passive activities like watching television or surfing the Internet. We lack the basic skills to provide for ourselves, and we neglect our imaginations by not engaging in creative endeavors. Without survival skills, without the experience of cultivating our own food and without regularly flexing our creative muscles, we have grown dependent on capitalism, the workforce and decisions made by politicians who are even more detached from our lives than we are. For goodness sake: we’re the only living things actually paying cash to live on the planet.
What we call community is made of the people living in any common place, or a group sharing the same interests, religion or disposition. But community is also a multigenerational process by which towns are created and nurtured by decades of family businesses, years of hardships and successes and the people who come to live and die within their towns’ boundaries. Community suggests a group of people who over time grow into one another and learn to function as a unit. We might think of community as a gesture of inclusiveness and acceptance. It’s camaraderie. Whether this banding together is borne of discrimination, a shared sense of purpose or a common set of responsibilities, community is what anchors us in our civilizations.
Ubuntu, or human kindness, is a Bantu term from South Africa referring specifically to our humanness. The word invokes a sense of connectedness among all living things and fosters a sense of community: I am who I am because of who we all are. The philosophy of ubuntu is in step with the changes needed to secure an economically and environmentally sustainable future.
Ubuntu is practiced when we see the people we interact with and the world we live in as mirrors. We create each other, we are influenced by each other; what we do to each other and the Earth we do to ourselves. Ubuntu dictates true openness to everyone, from strangers to our closest allies. Ubuntu acknowledges our uniqueness. People who adhere to Ubuntu are in this together. They enable their communities to be better.
The North Country where Better Farm is situated is a strange and beautiful place — and the Redwood community in particular is a perfect case study in community and the practice of Ubuntu. Nowhere before have I seen so much familiarity among neighbors, so many helping hands or such a vibrant barter system in place. Before 2009, my dwellings were oases from the world outside. Suburban homes and neighborhoods are often isolated fortresses by design. City living has such a high turnover rate, it’s a real challenge to know your neighbors or even the person living in the apartment next door.
When you lift the lid of a community like Redwood and begin to learn about the mechanisms that make it turn, you uncover a world of personalities, quirks and details you’d never guess existed. A strong community provides support for the young and old as well as anyone in need. But community also gives those in it a sense of belonging and pride. People feel like they are part of something larger than themselves. Community therefore becomes a cure for the isolation so many of us suffer from.
Community is healing in a lot of ways — not the least of which is neurological. When we have in-person exchanges, we release oxytocin and neurotransmitters that naturally reduce stress and induce trust. A 20-second hug releases enough oxytocin to lower our blood pressure, reduce the physical effects of stress, fight fatigue and infections and lower our heart rates.
Better Farm’s surrounding Redwood community is a solar system of humanity. Military veterans live alongside fishers who’ve never left New York State who live alongside liberals, artists and roofers. Toyota trucks with plastic Buddha sculptures duct-taped to the dashes roll by watering holes in which two-dollar Genny Lights are sipped by wiry old men while they debate NASCAR, the finer points of capital punishment and gun control. Not everyone likes each other — but just about everyone does something to benefit the community in some way. A person gets cancer, a fundraiser spaghetti dinner is planned. The post office’s paint peels, and a community group scrapes and repaints it. Every day around here, people are stopping in at each other’s homes to make sure they have enough to eat, have enough fuel or wood or propane, are in need of nothing. People help each other farm. Split each other’s wood. Community members gather together, solicit donations and secure a location to host a completely free Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings for anyone who would like to participate.
No matter how much the cast and crew of Better Farm goes out in the community to volunteer or lend a hand, the community always seems to be here in greater amounts helping. No matter how any of us tries to repay the favors and gifts bestowed upon us, more arrives. In Redwood you’re judged not by the dollar amount on your pay stubs, but by how much you contribute to the community in which you live. This is how neighborhood barter systems and close-knit groups thrive.