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I grew up in a small town of about 1,200 people in rural Northwestern Wisconsin. There are no stoplights or shopping centers; no freeways or light pollution. There is a Dollar General, a few churches, a few bars, and a long brick school that is the only school I set foot in from Kindergarten until the day I graduated, sometime in May, 2011.
One of my high school history teachers told us that the primary reason people enjoy small towns is the lack of people. Maybe that's true, but people need people, so I thought that couldn't be the whole story. I thought maybe people liked my hometown because it was predictable, or because everyone knew everyone, or because nothing hits your soft spot more than being known. To know the people you live and work around is nice and, I'd argue, necessary. Small towns aren't the only (or best way) to be known, though. Community is everywhere, if you look for it.
In a lot of ways, it's easier than ever to be connected to hundreds of people from around the globe. I've received messages from people overseas, joined online communities filled with people from all walks of life, and had the opportunity to meet unique and interesting people in real life due to connections made online. The internet, while connecting us, has had the perverse effect of making a lot of us feel lonelier than ever. Studies show that almost half of us feel lonely and isolated, despite near-constant connection. There are a host of reasons for this: the superficiality of our online world, an emphasis on the quantity of followers instead of the quality of relationships, addiction to our smartphones, and remote work environments that rely more on an internet connection than social interactions. The less we socialize, the more difficult it is to know how to socialize. And the more we're known for our online personas, the less we're truly known.
Some benefits of building a strong community include:
Access to Resources: A few weeks ago, I wrote about whether or not college is worth the cost (read that blog post here). I mentioned that one benefit of college is access to a wide network of resources. A college is a community, after all, and the wider your community, the more access you have to resources.
Safety and Support: A few years ago I caught the stomach flu and was surprised by the number of people offering to help me; to pick up medicine or bring me soup. I don't especially like asking for help, but that's another benefit of a community: access to a support network that takes care of each other's physical and emotional health.
Belonging: Finding a community with the same values, interests, and world views can make us feel less alone and more valued. Being accepted into a group gives us a stronger sense of self and can help us cope with negative experiences or feelings.
Connection & Influence: Jim Rohn made famous the rule that we are the five people we spend the most time with. Building a community of like-minded people can make you feel connected to a larger cause and might influence you to be a more conscious, healthier, disciplined person.
Learning: Communities are usually built around common interests, but that doesn’t mean they’re homogeneous. A lot of my personal connections have different political, religious, and ideological views than I have, but having a network of different people has helped me learn and grow. I've learned things and reached insights I would have never reached on my own.
David Spangler said, "Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.”
Building community isn't always easy or comfortable, but it's better to be known deeply by few than superficially by many. When I first moved to California, I barely knew anyone. I was lonely and unsure about where I fit in the landscape of Southern California. In the past five years, I've been fortunate to find community in many places: in the running world, in the writing world, at work, and even online. The deeper my connections to these communities become, the more invested I feel in the health and happiness of every member of my community. That's a beautiful thing. And there is no better feeling than entering a room full of people who know and love you; than receiving a genuine smile and a warm embrace and saying with sincerity, "It's so good to see you."
P.S. Read about how to find community in a new city here, read a post about building community from THNK School of Creative Leadership, or watch a Tedx video about building community and finding purpose.