I recently taught a class on friendship. Most people in the group felt they had a lot of "feel good" friends -- people to enjoy dinner and a movie with, but very few real friends -- people to trust and confide in. While it's true that real friends have always been hard to come by, I'm not alone in thinking that the situation has deteriorated. According to studies at Duke and the University of Arizona, the network of support and trust that adults have to call on is shrinking. (New York Times 07/02/06)
Although the internet fosters the illusion of more and widespread friendships, most people's sense of community has narrowed or is non-existent.
While the authors suggest an upside in that spouses play that role, making the marriage partners close, this can also place too much pressure on a marriage. If our expectations become centered on one human being, they can't possibly be borne out. No one can live up to that image or responsibility.
Although big cities of transient populations only deepen this desperate loneliness, a Jewish community can provide real solace and connection, even in the most alienating of big cities.
Al though the cashier at the corner market may not be a close confidant, it's heartening to shop at a store whey they ask about my children and evince real joy in seeing them. And so it goes with the cleaners, the optician down the street, and of course the local kosher candy shop.
But I was speaking of deeper relationships. These two are strengthened and buoyed up by a community built on shared values (vs. shared aesthetics). While everyone in the neighborhood may not be the recipient of our deepest darkest secrets (some things are better kept to ourselves anyway), we open up to people we trust, people we think will understand and empathize. Frequently these are fellow members of the community.
Not to mention physical support -- meals after births and deaths, house cleaning, babysitting; a real sense of what's mine is yours. The Jewish community provides that even across geographic boundaries. You're coming to LA? Please stay with us. We're coming to NY. My neighbors have room. We so come to take these kindnesses for granted that we risk not being fully appreciative. We don't recognize how unusual it is.
Other psychological studies confirm the health benefits of community living. I'm not talking about living in Disney-sponsored Celebration but in a real community where members share the good and the bad -- far beyond lawn care tips and rigid rules about paint colors.
There is a downside to living in a community. Periodically the duplex next door to us becomes vacant. We urge our house hunting friends to consider taking it. They usually refuse, afraid to live under the watchful eyes of "the rabbi and rebbetzin". No matter how hard we try to convince them that we have busy lives (and no binoculars), they still refuse. We certainly don't spy on our neighbors, (although I can't speak for some of my bored children), but I actually understand their concern.
The price of community is a certain loss of privacy. The lives and actions of the members are more public, more commented upon. Decisions, changed minds, family struggles, are all lived under the scrutiny of caring (and curious) friends. It can be uncomfortable at times. It can be embarrassing. It can be confusing. But it can also be comforting.
As kids tire of hearing and adults wisely recognize, everything in life is a trade off. If I ever had doubts about choosing community over privacy, reading "The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier" by Henry Fountain put them to rest.