Small-Town Solidarity in this Political Season

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

 

R. R. Reno, the editor at First Things Magazine, an intellectual journal exploring religion and public life, offers some intriguing thoughts this month in his article “Common Good Conservatism.” In the first section, Reno focuses on the terrible rift in American society today between the sides of the political spectrum where both feel “under assault”, “inflamed” and “on edge”.

Sides disagree vehemently on economics, equality and immigration. Disagreements are fueled for political gain by villainizing anyone in opposition to one’s views. Reno sees the solution, not as agreement or the victory of one side over the other, but the desperate need in our society to restore solidarity.

He writes solidarity has “weakened dramatically over the last generation. The collective “we” have become remote and inaccessible…The threat is magnified by the blindness of our political establishment. It can only see threats to inclusion (left) or threats to freedom (right). Our task, therefore, should be to promote a politics of the common good, one that seeks to repair the fabric of our society.”

This belief in solidarity is a powerful one. When a population holds and practices solidarity, the littlest among them begins to matter.

 

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Solidarity is defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”

At the Hughson Community Thanksgiving Dinner, I pressed Pastor Tim for great interview quotes regarding community. Having nothing to do with this column, I asked him to explain the value of helping the community. He pointed out, astutely, that many of the familiar faces who gather together for the many volunteer opportunities in Hughson launched by the City, the Chamber, the Citizens for a Healthy Community, the Ministerial Association, and more, do not come together just to help the community, but to build community.

These small towns go beyond the events of the big city because we are living these ideas of solidarity. You may not see it on Facebook and you may not see it on Next-door. On the social media platforms, personhood is reduced to words and opinions. It takes a bit of imagination to remember all the other views and opinions and facets of personhood the responder has. We fight words with words. They are simply words challenging my opinion. The biting begins.

Did you know that when we speak to each other face-to-face, making eye contact, that we unconsciously mimic the facial expressions of the speaker? We are wired for this social intelligence, to attend to, to feel with, to respond to the one who feels (read more in Daniel Goleman’s book “Social Intelligence”). This is sympathy, empathy, this is community. And covering these events I have heard Cindy Morphy say, again and again, this is what will keep us going as a society. Working together, we see the “other,” and in the process, we see each other.

Our small towns and our rural society provide invaluable opportunities to remember who “The Other” is, how he or she has needs, daily irritations and struggles, triumphs and tragedies. In a small town, it is harder to build an anonymous bubble around me (though not impossible) because I see my neighbor everywhere! We stretch our minds when Paradise burns because we can imagine our child experiencing what that child experiences whose home was burned to the ground. We connect closer, deeper.

There are some who never lose sight of this. They make excellent, inspirational volunteer and community leaders. It is their charism, their blue flame, and society needs them badly. When you live in a town (I write from Hughson and witness it here) where the local government gives a platform to these individuals, acknowledging that they have the power to build up society by bringing people together, then you have that thing that makes Hughson and other towns like it unique and good.

It is not perfect. Nothing is, because no people are. But we are protecting a gift lost in much of America. And as politics and social media heat with anger and the state burns, the little towns of people in solidarity will become a light to show there is something bigger, greater and more enduring than the flames of indignation we cast about us.

Building Community Drop By Drop

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

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Berkeley, Charlottesville, North Korea, Mexico, Florida, Texas, Montana, Oregon, ISIS, health insurance, climate, UN, opioid epidemic, university protests…the list goes on and on of areas in our country, in our world, in our newsfeed in crisis. Two days ago I sat with my mother on her porch and we talked about how these seem to be particularly dark times. Yesterday, my neighbor told me the news:

“Stanislaus County deputies found 64-year-old David Brichetto of Oakdale dead in a white, four-door sedan parked along Geer Road, just south of Yosemite Boulevard. Brichetto had sustained injuries indicating he had been killed by someone.” (Fox News, 9/18/17)

There was a time when a little town far away from everything else as disconnected as the miles that lay between it and its neighboring town. It might be a newsworthy event to travel from one’s rural retreat to town to buy supplies. I have never lived in such an era.

With the Internet and social media, we find ourselves with access news from all over the world in towns we could have lived and died without ever having heard of just a few decades ago. The world is smaller, they say. Then why do we seem so far apart?

A veteran sat on the side of the road selling tools and asking for work. I asked my parents about this man. Someone they knew had hired him. He was a good man and a good worker, but not able to do heavy manual labor.

Until he died, I never knew his name.

Loneliness is the epidemic of our times.

It affects children who sit alone playing video games. It affects stay-at-home parents who feel isolated in their own neighborhoods. It affects empty nesters whose children moved out-of-state. It affects aging persons whose suburban housing developments have no benches to rest on during a morning walk.

Small doses of loneliness can give us opportunities to recharge, reflect and consider the big questions of life. Long-term loneliness and social isolation, “the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships” puts our brain in survival mode, neglecting activity in the areas used for empathy, increases depression, and decreases life expectancy (Entis, L., “Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic,” Fortune, June 22, 2016.)

Specialists on the subject say terrorists want people to panic, to turn against each other, to cause terror. In natural disasters, nationally funded aid often struggles to get through the waters. People survive by helping each other, sharing boats, delivering pizza. When we come together, we can make it through dark times.

For children ages two to three, parallel play is satisfying. For older children and adults, it is not enough to be side-by-side with another person, absorbed in totally different activities. Our brains and bodies crave personal engagement. We need to be heard and understood. We need to hear and understand.

The speed of our cars, fears of urban legends, and the news cycle itself keep us moving past the man on the side of the road. Keeping safety in mind, what could we have done differently? Perhaps, by myself, not much.

But if I invest in my town, if I am engaged in my local church or community group, maybe I could have had a place to invite him.

Some people who live alone go an entire day without speaking to anyone. Maybe this will be the year I take my children to sing Christmas Carols at Samaritan Village, a community-minded retirement center. I should keep an eye out in my neighborhood. Maybe there is an elderly neighbor I never see. Maybe we could take that neighbor cup of lemonade when we have our lemonade stand.

By ourselves, we cannot change the world. The world will change drop by drop. Mother Teresa said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

I do not want to live in my own little world. Each tragedy or crisis in the world is a call to remind us how much we need each other, and when we work together, leaving no person forgotten or behind, we can accomplish great things.

For more meditations on communities and persons unknown, check out this review by Stephen Greydanus on a new film, Unknown.