Updated: Mar 13, 2018
Are you looking for meaning in your life?
The pieces you seek are right around you.
Modernity: community at a distance.
Think about when a town was a few hundred people, or in my case, when a village was a few families. The formation of a community was imperative for survival. People exchanged goods and everybody was part of the common wealth. With industrialization, community took on a different shape, possibly to its detriment. In my situation, war misplaced me and my sense of community was shaken to its core. It now had a shape that continuously changed from one country to the other.
On top of a changing community, we now have virtual reality. Facebook, Twitter, and plain ole' email seem to make it easier to connect with each other, but it's harder to connect with each other...
These interfaces may provide control over when to enter and exit each other's lives, but it also gives us an opportunity to keep distance, in some cases, too much distance. This trend of being in the community but yet alone is at best a trap of the modern man and heading us to dysfunctional destruction without most of us noticing!
Even though we are taking less time to think about community, deep inside we know that it is the foundation of a happier life. We know that a human flourishes well in it.
My first year in the USA: an illusion of belonging.
I had never thought of this until I moved in the USA. Something strange was going to happen to me. I was going to trade my community for living an individualistic life and become a slave to working so much that I would sacrifice meaningful connection with the world right around me. I am sure in the minds of my friends back in Africa, I was one of the statistics of those who "make it out" and forget where they are from...but that wasn't the case. I just didn't have a moment to catch my own breath.
To tell you the truth, up to this point I had no idea about the realities of life in the USA, except maybe a distorted view gained through movies. In my mind this was the ultimate destination on earth. I first landed in Newark, New Jersey and my new home was on a street called Salem in a ghetto of Elizabeth-Newark (if you read the bible you know that "Salem" means peace). For someone who had been a refugee for 22+ years, this was not my first time in a new place and environment, but this was surely different. This was the first time I felt peace and a high sense of belonging instantly. To me, this land was magical! While I had no interactions with my neighbors, as i had used to back home, the fact that nobody cared about me gave me the sense of security. In my context, this was strange but I loved the fact.
From 1994 to 2013, the question "where are you from?" was always a sign that I stood out and people clearly knew that I didn't belong. In some instances, this was a matter of death or life. In most cases, I had no choice but to learn a new language and try to disguise my identity in efforts to avoid that question altogether. Maybe they would just think that someone in my family was a foreigner but not me... In all my conversations, I dogged that question and hoped that no one would ask me. Now in my new home, nobody cared! When someone did get to ask me that question, I was pleasantly surprised by how my answer stirred up their excitement and intrigue.
And now the thing that drove me out of my community (being a refugee) and into a disconnected society (America) is the thing RE-connecting me (my story). Ironic, no?
In the USA, everyone belongs and everyone's story is celebrated. How relieving! A place where the "stranger" is welcomed. It is not this way in Africa. When you are foreign, you are excluded severely.
Chasing a living at the expense of community.
First job I worked was in a hotel in Manhattan and enjoyed the travel into the city every day. This was a commute of two hours, and quickly it became difficult especially because I worked shifts that changed week to week. I would wake up some time 4 a.m. and ask my then pregnant wife to drive me to the train station.
Upon the arrival in the city, I would walk for 30 minutes (but usually I was running to clock in on time). Other days, I would go to work in the afternoon and end my shift 11 p.m. and because of the schedule of the trains, literally, I would race to catch my train back just to avoid a 45 minute wait for the next train. This still got me home past midnight with a potential of making a U-turn, coming back in the morning (depending on the next day's schedule).
At this time, my wife was pregnant our first son and she was just unable to wake up that early in the morning or pick me up that late in the night. So, I bought a bike and started to ride it from home to the station and from the station to work. While this was easier than before, this was not without its own challenges. Sometimes, in rush hour I wasn't allowed to have it on the train. The conductor would make me wait for the next available train. This commute was the least of my worries. My supervisors were on top of us all the time, pushing us like "donkeys". In addition to that, the hotel had 27 floors! I went up and down those stairs so much that my body and knees were aching and hurting. I had never in my life taken medicine until I worked that job. I would come home and take ibuprofen.
Where was the community in all this?
I promise you, if I was able to kiss my wife good night it was an achievement, let alone have time to catch up with a friend back in Africa. My next door neighbors were always strangers except for saying hello in the elevator. Small talk starting with that deadly question, "Where are you from," wasn't trying to discriminate me, but it wasn't making me feel like I had a community either.
The pursuit of happiness is impossible out side a community.
I was longing for a community unified and responsible for my well-being. Yes - responsible! To be your brother's keeper. To grow you by looking out for the other. It is life's natural humility pill and a work of great honor. This is what a community is for. Just like DNA, I don't think you can have healthy individuals without community. At this point it is evident that the community is imperative for the pursuit of happiness.
If a community is so vital to our happiness, shouldn't we study the health of a community?
Our world of technology is fascinating and I believe God uses it for good, but it's not the real thing...a text is not the same as a person sitting beside you sharing a cup of tea and talking about your day.
I miss time for tea and a culture that pauses life as naturally as the sun rises and sets each day. I traded it for safety - of which I am forever grateful. For my fellow Africans and all other people who have tasted community, you know its benefits and you know it is needed.
Let's build it here in Harrisonburg and in every city possible. Let's gather and congregate. Let's share tea and share stories. The neat thing about having community in America is that now, we aren't just in community with people who look like us and talk like us but now...we are in community all together! It can be more challenging - sure - but it can be all the more rewarding, too!