Community is where it’s at

Here’s the thing about a world that’s changing. You have to really work at unlearning things.

That’s right, unlearning. Until you manage to let go of ideas that are wrong for the time, saying the right ones over and over still won’t convince you to change your behaviour.

Thinking about Thinking

You may not be aware of it, but your ideas form a set of subconscious connections that influence how you see things (or even if you see them).

These form elements of what Thomas Langan, in Being and Truth, called “natural faith”. Some are well connected, others just “hang there”, floating and getting in the way.

Some of the largest floating concepts we have, only loosely connected if at all to things we’ve actually verified for ourselves, form a framework which limits our thinking. Coupled with our horizon of interpretation — we can’t know everything at any point in time — we can end up making many misjudgements that affect our lives and the lives of those we love.

Now, when the framework corresponds nicely to the world as it is and likely will be, these generally are recoverable errors. But when the world is changing rapidly, and going off in a new direction, and we still evaluate everything in the light of a framework that’s increasingly wrong, we’re going to get a lot wrong (and so are a lot of other people around us, further increasing our distress).

This is why we must unlearn things. We have to do the hard work of rebuilding elements of our natural faith about the world, if we’re going to allow what’s going on to truly be present to us (and thus build a framework that again helps us rather than hurts us).

(I remember the two years we lived in the United States. My daughter was in school. I watched her malleable natural faith evolving simply from her interactions with schoolmates and teachers, as the more individualistic framework of American experience started to overwrite her just-forming Canadian one. Returning to Canada at a young age allowed yet another overwrite to take place — whereas as an adult both my wife and I held onto what we’d come to this foreign land with. I was conscious of the differences, but as I wasn’t actively working to unlearn, my framework stuck with me throughout the period.)

So what is different?

What we need to unlearn most of all in this time is our belief in individual success. Elements of that frame include the way we think about ownership (from real property to things to ideas) to the way we think about judging success (money, material possessions, job titles to where we live), paths to get there (education, job-readiness), to what it means when we see someone not “succeeding”.

Rampant individualism — judging everything through the prism of “I” — leads us to do things like value goods produced cheaply overseas even though our city suffers from the loss of work, value decisions that increase our holdings no matter what the societal cost in unemployment, environmental damage or loss of future options (as knowledge and skills leave the area), and put a premium on ignoring many pressing concerns “that don’t affect me”, from well-being at large to that homeless person over there.

Such a framework worked really well to play into a society that was forever growing and expanding. Starting again after a mistake in such a world allowed for the possibility of catching up. The general growth and expansion made any misallocated resources easily replaced.

But that’s not today. Resources are harder and harder to replace. Things aren’t growing, and aren’t likely to. (Only someone with no basic arithmetic could believe in endless growth on a finite sphere.) Recovery from errors now comes with stiff premiums attached.

What this means is that finding ways to share — to share risks, to share rewards, to share property, to make recovery a tide rather than a personal lift — moves to a more central position in our framework than striving to “have it all and you’re obviously no good if you don’t” (the old frame) used to do to get us to strive and succeed.

That’s why we see younger people today choosing — not merely accepting, but consciously arranging their lives to take advantage of the option — not to join the driving culture around them (they walk, use transit, bike); choosing not-for-profit or micro-business lives rather than the corporate ladder; choosing to return to small towns or farms rather than remain in the city they were educated in; choosing, in other words, to operate on a different framework than we grew up with.

Need a tool? Share it, from a tool library, rather than buy it. Contribute some time to your friend’s venture, and get some time back in turn for one of your own. Buy from the farmer’s market and stay out of the middle aisles of the supermarket. You see all sorts of behaviours which under the frame of the twentieth century in North America make no sense, but with a weather eye on no growth, expensive and limited resources, make a great deal of sense.

And the most fundamental piece of that is selecting and building a community.

Community building

I recall a few years ago in Vancouver how VanCity (a credit union) had an advertising campaign showing that they’d write a mortgage for unrelated people buying a house in common. Normally that’s paper that’s pretty hard to come by: one person buying the property and financing it, while charging rent to the rest, yes, but not shared ownership without either a corporate structure or blood ties underwriting it.

It was a sign of the times in many ways. There’ll be much more of this as we go forward: having to deal with the existing mechanisms for ownership but adapting them to the shared communal ties that are emerging.

Last weekend also saw, in this city, another repairathon (bring your clothes or small appliances that need repair) — all items that even a few years ago would have been discarded and replaced rather than be repaired. The stitchers and other repairers volunteered their time (no one was paid): another form of community-building.

A month ago, one of my fellows in the East End Sustainability Network hosted a walk through the community, to point out native breeds of plant that mostly we wouldn’t notice while moving through the neighbourhood, talking about what was edible, what grew in poor conditions, and the like. Transferring a life’s knowledge while bringing strangers together for an afternoon, as the first step to breaking down the old frame.

For a long time, we’ve thought of our communities (to the extent we’ve thought of community at all) as those who do what I do — fellow lawyers, fellow programmers, etc. — sometimes “fellow employees of X” and sometimes just the profession or work we perform. Where we lived was just a collection of places, where we might know some names, but we really had tighter ties to those “in our network” who could do us some good in our personal quest for success.

We’re going back to village life, at least in the sense that where you live is where you work, where you play, where you exchange, and therefore where everyone knows you and you know them, as more than just a name.

But until we unlearn the grow and succeed frame, it’ll be a rocky journey.

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