Monday, May 18, 2009

What is "community"?

I have been struggling with this question an awful lot since the Forests course began. When the students got together to discuss the gender meeting (women met with women and men met with men) in Huai Tong Gow, the guys described a discussion that emerged concerning the issue of divorce. When the village men heard how high the divorce rate was in America, they were very curious to know why and what that meant for American families. They explained that divorce does not exist in their community and concluded that America must not be as "developed" as everyone says if they can't even keep their marriages together. Family integrity and intactness seems to be one of the top values in this community because kinship and friendship networks are the binding fabric of the village life. Perhaps divorce is so unfathomable to the men because a lot less pressure is put on spouses to fulfill each other's emotional and physical needs since there are so many members of the community who all help to fulfill individual and group needs. It's not that Karen men are necessarily any happier with their marriages than Americans (in fact, bad marriages was another big topic of conversation at the guys' gender meeting), but the integrity of the whole group seems to often trump the individual.

I don't want to defend divorce, but it was interesting to me that not one of the men expressed even an inkling of curiosity about whether divorce might be desirable in some way. They just condemned it outright as a destroyer of families and communities. Luke seemed to think that divorce was another manifestation of our wasteful, disposable, self-centered society in which we can just throw something away and get a new one at any time. I think there is some truth in this, but I wonder if it has more to do with our unwillingness to suffer individually for a greater common good. That idea of a greater common good and the closeness of our communities, seems to have eroded terribly in America. It's almost BAD now to be generous and giving because there are so many "takers" who will take advantage. Only in some situations, usually a small community that agrees to abide by a strict set of values (a family, church community, commune, intentional community, etc), can you still see glimmers of individual sacrifice for a common goal. Many religions teach self-sacrifice as something that is true and right, but while this may have served an important social purpose years ago, it may be a disservice now to Americans living in a society where social accountability is lacking and trust has gone down the drain.

In so many ways, Huai Tong Gow could be a model for healthy communities, but does it translate to America? This village apparently has no crime, no divorce, very little out-migration... by many standards it is calm, stable, and whole. Could Americans stand the utter openness and generosity required for a lifestyle like this, or is a lonely, disconnected existence in which family and community can be chosen based on individual preference most desirable?

One of the biggest problems with the American paradigm of "individualism" is that it does not reflect reality. None of us is an island. We can't extricate ourselves from the societal processes that shaped us or the effects our actions have on others. If we could live in utter awareness of those around us, our dependence on them and their dependence on us, maybe divorce would be as unfathomable in our society as it is in theirs.

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