A Sense of Community — in Daylight and in Darkness

While I was in middle school, a Mormon family — the first ever that my small, rural, home town had seen in its 140 years — moved into a large Victorian home close to the center of the town.   In the Fall of that year, I met Glenn, the family’s oldest child, and we became friends.

I have found in my almost 54 years on this infinitely beautiful and infinitely tragic rock that some folks — and by “some” I mean mostly folks who have never ever themselves lived for a long time in a small, close knit community of souped up great apes — idealize small town life.

They look at the low crime rates, at the very strong tendency of small town people to help each other — and help even perfect strangers — conquer their misfortunes, at the casual, easy-going friendliness of small town people, at the sometimes astonishingly profound sense of community possessed by small town people, and so on — they look at those and other things and conclude that small town living is ideal.

I think Glenn’s family — the parents at least — moved into our small town with that upside in their eyes, and with not much feel for the downside that also comes with small town living, and that comes joined at the hip with it, and that can never be separated from it.

But putting aside both upsides and downsides for a moment,  Glenn and I could soon each day be found eating lunch together. It turned out he was one of — at the very most — six kids in my class of almost 100 who naturally possessed a strong intellectual bent.  And he happened to be the only one of those six with whom I was by middle school on full speaking terms.

I was ecstatic to at last know someone — a peer! — who seemed to welcome my discussing with him all our mutual interests, from the NASA moon program to the lives of dolphins, from the personalities of our teachers to the concept of coolness, from distant nations to the nations of Native Americans.  We had strong opinions about everything, Glenn and I in middle school.

Now, it was in middle school that the attempts to ostracize me began in earnest.  Before middle school, there had been some light ostracism by my classmates.  But it was in middle school that a few parents got involved, and that took the attempts to a new level.  In a small town, kids have little choice but to obey when their parents tell them to have nothing to do with you.

And if you yourself grew up in a small town, then it’s possible you have guessed by now that I almost certainly must have been guilty, in one way or another, of committing what is nearly the greatest possible offense that can be committed in a tight, interdependent community; that is, I must have been guilty of committing repeated acts of willful, blatant, and outspoken non-conformity.   Either that or murder will often buy you a massive dose of ostracism in a small town.

If I had the brains, growing up, to keep such things as my agnosticism to myself, rather than have the poor taste and judgment to proselytize it, then I would have gotten along like most everyone else.  But I was the sort of obnoxious kid who would have grabbed a megaphone to announce his opinions and beliefs if he’d had a megaphone handy to grab.  And — looking back at it all  now with the matured eyes of one who has since those years studied humanity not to condemn humanity but to understand us — I cannot blame the folks of my hometown for ostracizing me.

My words in middle school, and both my words and actions through-out most of high school, were threats to folk’s sense of community.  Nowadays, I can laugh at how they were threatened by me,  but I must admit that I was pretty much telling them in those years to fuck off with their precious community. How would you expect them to respond to that?  By warmly giving me the key to the city?  The very same sense of community that all but insures one neighbor will help the other, also all but insures blatant and intentionally offensive non-conformists will be ostracized.

I doubt Glenn knew much more about the ostracism than to notice I only had a couple friends besides him.  I might have tried explaining it to him — in very judgmental and simplistic middle school terms, of course — but if I did, I don’t recall I did.  My other two friends were not, like Glenn himself, natural born intellectuals.  So, it was Glenn, more than they, who rescued me from the ostracism by sharing the same interests as me, by being someone I could really talk with.

Glenn and I stayed friends through high school when, at times, he was the only one of my classmates still talking with me.  But after we graduated high school and left town (forever!) for different universities, the two of us went separate ways.  Before that, though, there was an incident late our high school years that caused me to secretly loose faith in Glenn.

I was out riding my bicycle one day when I spotted Glenn and Dennis in the distance.  Dennis was a warm, unusually loyal, and easy going athletic kid who had been my best friend from third grade until our sophomore year in high school.  During our sophomore year, he had suddenly distanced himself from me.  I didn’t know why until years later, after we were fully adult, when he apologized to me for having followed his mother’s instructions to have nothing more to do with me.   At any rate, I rode over to where Glenn and Dennis were sitting on the grass in Glenn’s yard.

As I pulled up, they ceased talking with each other, and reluctantly greeted me.  I gathered I was interrupting a conversation that neither of them wanted interrupted.  But before I could excuse myself and back out of there, Dennis stood up, said he was late getting home, and made his goodbyes.

Glenn and I were left to hold an awkward conversation during which I learned that he and Dennis had been discussing evolution, and that Glenn had been very busy with trying to convince Dennis the Theory of Evolution was nonsense.

That shocked me.  It was the first time ever that someone with more than just three brain cells told me they refused to accept the fact and Theory of Evolution.  I couldn’t believe it!

In my naive high school worldview,  intelligent people never denied evolution — fact or Theory. Glenn’s rejection of evolution was impossible!

After Glenn and I parted that day, the full significance of the event began to sink in and I came very close to crying.  At that point in my life, Glenn was my only friend, my entire community, and I knew that in some sense I had that day lost him, for in high school I was not yet sophisticated enough to really trust someone with whom I had a fundamental difference of opinion or worldview.

I kept it all to myself, of course, so that Glenn and I could continue nominal friends.  But from that event onward, I had no faith in him.

Looking back, I realize now that I was like so many of the people in my home town:  “…not yet sophisticated enough to really trust someone with whom we had a fundamental difference of opinion or worldview.”

As I mentioned earlier, Glenn and I went separate ways after high school.  And that was the case for 35 years.   Then after all those years, I got it in me to google him.  I found him these days a lawyer in Texas, and I found an email too, so I wrote to him.

In our first conversation in 35 years, he told me over the phone that he was an agnostic these days, politically a  Libertarian, studying Nietzsche, and still church going, “Only I’m not sure I believe in any of it anymore, Paul.”

“Then why do you still go to church, if you are no longer convinced of it?”

“Community.  All my friends are there.”

Yeah, people forget it, sometimes try to forget it, but in the end the fact we are part social animal remains — sometimes to comfort us.  Sometimes to haunt us.

In the end, part of us belongs to a community, part of us belongs to ourselves.   Part of us is a social animal, part of us is an individual.  There’s a tension there, and it will forever be there.

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10 thoughts on “A Sense of Community — in Daylight and in Darkness

  1. “… repeated acts of willful, blatant, and outspoken non-conformity.”

    Been there, done that. Critical thought is not always welcome in small towns, and the small town in which I grew up was no exception. In my experience, it’s even worse in rural, working-class towns.

    I think living in a large town or a city innoculates people to difference, and they come to welcome (or at least tolerate) different backgrounds and viewpoints. In smaller, more homogeneous areas, people are exposed to difference less often, and thus have a negative reaction on the occassions when they do encounter it.

  2. Excellent post, Paul. And very interesting. You make some great points that would require a lot of thought and space to comment adequately. So I’ll take a stab at only one point for now. There is a tension there — community vs. self — but at the end of the day, one has to be true to him-/herself, community be damned if necessary. Especially if being true to oneself means being isolated from the prevailing community. To me, that unwavering loyalty to self and personal integrity is the ultimate source of peace and happiness. We don’t have to be assholes about it, merely firm and determined.

    I believe the story about The Ugly Duckling is also illustrative. Sometimes we are born into cultures and communities that never seemed to fit … and for good reason. Fitting in meant killing/sacrificing the self. Eventually we are drawn to our own kind with whom we beautifully soar. And sometimes that personal integrity brings us full circle back to the Glenns in our lives who simply took a little longer to figure out he was always a swan at heart.

  3. Thanks for sharing this bit of your life Paul. I think it is illustrative of how people will abandon their principles in order to remain part of a community, or even open themselves up to opposing their previous feelings to join a new group. I guess that is the price of easy friendship, letting go of some of your opinions and pride… or at least, keeping them to yourself.

  4. I think, Ahab, the thing that saved my life was leaving town to hitchhike out West in the summer of my 16th year.

    I was suicidal by then, but I returned from my travels that summer with hope. I had met people who accepted me just as I was. So, from then on, I knew it was possible to be accepted for myself.

    And I was smart enough to grasp that I would almost certainly find more people who could accept me for myself if and when I left town for college. So, after that summer long trip when I was 16, I had no remaining desire to kill myself.

    I have lived in cities ever since leaving that town for exactly the reasons you state, Ahab. City air is freer than town air. Even the fundamentalist dominated, god-drunk city I live in now is freer than my hometown.

  5. CD, I just re-read my post for the first time since I wrote it, and I think someone who read only that one post might come to the mistaken conclusion that I advocate community over the individual. I don’t. I advocate a balance.

    I do not think for a moment, however, that our society has ever arrived at a decent balance between the individual and society. It’s possible the ancient Greeks did for a brief while in Athens and perhaps in a few other cities, but I don’t think we have.

    But so far as I can see, we evolved an unique nature. On the one hand, we evolved to live in cooperative groups as a social animal. On the other hand, we evolved a strong individualism that is not possessed by most other highly cooperative social animals.

    Back in the good old days — the days when we lived most of the time in small hunting/gathering groups — we most likely managed a pretty good balance between the society and the individual. But once we began hankering after the strange and perverted gods of “civilization”, CD, I believe we have seldom struck a decent balance, and that — worse — we have mostly promoted society at the expense of the individual. In the long history of civilization, we have almost always screwed the individual.

    Your Ugly Duckling analogy is beautiful. And so appropriate!

    Aristotle once said something about all of this when he was giving career advice. He said, and I’m forced to heavily paraphrase here (it doesn’t translate easily), he said, when choosing your life’s work, you will discover your bliss at that place where your individual talents and skills intersect with the needs of your society.

    Notice how he thinks, CD! Being an ancient Greek, he looks for a balance between the individual and society.

    Now, if Aristotle had been a Christian, he would have told you to sacrifice your selfish individualism in order to “fit in” where society needs another brick in the wall. I’m putting it more bluntly than is typical, but that is the essential Christian message. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

    Well, why do we need to exclusively do either? Why can’t we have a balance?

    I love the smell of your comments on my post in the morning, CD! 😀 Seriously, I found them exciting.

  6. Thank you, Sean! What you say is so true. And I think it is quite unfortunate that most of us have more or less through-out our lives been encouraged to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of getting along with others. But when society looses our points of view, isn’t society somehow lessened?

  7. Thanks for your reply, Paul. I’ve thought a lot about this topic — our social nature and our hunger for individuality. Finding balance is the trick, isn’t it? I like your translation of Aristotle’s career advice. I need to work on that particular bliss.

    I guess my comments in the morning are something akin to a good cup of coffee? Maybe because I’m usually sipping my own when I blog surf first thing. ; )

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