What must it be like to live in Clatterford? For those not in the know, this fictional British town is the setting of Jam and Jerusalem, a sitcom written by Jennifer Saunders (of Absolutely Fabulous fame). Aired as Clatterford in the U.S., the show is a touching look at life in a small village, mostly through the eyes of the members of the local women’s guild. The remarkable thing about Clatterford (other than the expected Britcom eccentricity) is the true sense of community. Even if they get on one another’s nerves, the citizens of Clatterford care for one another for no other reason than their shared community. They are neighbors, and neighbors care for one another. (In fact, the weakest relationships in the stories are those of family.)
I know that life in Clatterford is idealized, but watching it always makes me think about how fractured our modern sense of community has become. Michael and I are very lucky to have wonderful, supportive, caring neighbors. This has not been the case in every place that we have lived. Most of the people I know have at best a passing acquaintance with their nearest neighbors and no sense of a larger neighborhood or community. Many who do engage, do so as part of a fractious neighborhood association that obliterates any sense of true community.
Modern American life places a low value on work / life balance. For those who try to find a good middle ground, the life part often gets subsumed by rushing from obligation to obligation, not taking the time to get to know the people one interacts with as anything other than another Board member or soccer mom.
“Reality” television sets bizarre expectations for what it means to be a normal person. Communities are painted as hostile and competitive. People don’t matter unless they’re winning something and defeating someone else. Participation is reduced to an Oprah-esque purging, with each person waiting for their turn to mist up in the guest chair.
Online “communities” also contribute to this artificiality. FaceBook is a fine place to share passing comments with casual acquaintances or to post a joke or opinion. Among the farm animals, pointless dining updates, and inappropriate airing of grievances, however, there is very little real community. Internet communities are fine for what they are, and often let geographically disparate people share interests, but they are not a substitute for real human interaction.
In the places we can interact with real humans, half the people around us are texting, tweeting, and shouting into their gadgets. Caught up in a false sense of urgency, one can mistake the ability to be connected with the need to be, ironically failing to engage with the broader world one is actually in.
There are, of course, wonderful exceptions. It is heartening to see people like Zach Wahls take the time to engage with their communities and use voices for good. I am fortunate enough to work in a field that has community at its very heart. (In fact, the theme of this year’s Oregon Library Association conference is “Libraries build Communities build Libraries.”) Michael and I have been lucky enough to live in two supportive, engaging communities. It just feels like this is the exception rather than the rule right now.
It takes energy to be part of a community, but it is energy that is returned multifold. As winter wanes, let’s all use the new spring as an opportunity to get out into the world.
- Turn off your television.
- Walk away from your computer (For the record, I fully acknowledge the irony of posting this instruction on a blog.)
- Leave your phone at home.
- Find a place to gather with people and make the effort to actually talk to them.
- Mix community and good works – volunteer!
Community is contagious. Let’s all try to be carriers.
P.S. – As an added bonus, Jam and Jerusalem has one of the most perfect theme songs in television. Ray Davies (of the Kinks) brilliant paean to community, The Village Green Preservation Society, is lovingly and gently adapted by Kate Rusby.