Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Death of Community

My sense of isolation after talking to the homeless man the other day reminded me of this that I wrote about a year ago. Perhaps a bit more organized discussion of modern isolationism:

Modern advances in transportation and communication have changed many of the basic ways humans live together, by giving people the ability to move and speak long distances with ease. For much of history a most human society was composed of small tribes or towns. People rarely left family and friends behind. The people someone interacted with and saw everyday were the people he had known his whole life.

This is no longer the case. Today the adult American moves many times in a lifespan, and lives far from his extended family and old friends. The people he works around are not the people he lives near, and neither his co-workers or his neighbors are his friends. Our American ideal of "individualism" teaches us that, despite our loves and friendships, life is essentially a solitary act. Our modern cities are usually not large communities, but places where thousands of individuals live in isolation. TV and entertainment distract us from spending time with each other. Instant communications allow us to connect with those we know who are thousands of miles away, but it also allows opportunities to hide ourselves. Long ago an isolated human was an exception; now isolation is the rule.

The isolated modern man can become a master of disguise. He can hide his pain, his failure, his disappointments quite easily. He can present different versions of himself at work, at home, with neighbors, in church, and to distant family and friends thousands of miles away. This is something people years ago who were rooted in tightly-knit communities could not have done very easily. The isolated individual at first embraces this isolation. It protects him from showing his weakness and flaws to others, but before long he realizes that there is no longer anyone who knows or understands him. Before he knows it he has descended into loneliness and despair.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Suspicion and Isolation

Last night I saw a homeless man bundled on a bench downtown, a rare sight here in Kingsport. It was already well below freezing and late. It was obvious the old man would spend the night outside. I remembered that as a younger man I would have gone to help a suffering person, but older and more suspicious I went to my car. I had plenty of space in my warm home, but strangers could be dangerous.

As I drove away I realized that with my wife out of town the standard excuse that “I can't endanger my family to help a stranger” couldn't be used. The fact that I might leave an old man to suffer to defend only my property made me feel a bit sick to my stomach. It was more shame than kindness that made me turn my car around.

“Hi, do you have a place to sleep?”


“If you need a warm place to stay tonight, you can stay at my house.”

At first the old man seemed to smile then frowned again. “No thank you.” It was odd to realize that this man who I had so distrusted also viewed me as a potentially dangerous stranger.

“You sure? It's pretty cold.” He nodded. I waved good-bye, “Okay. God Bless.”

The grizzled old man pulled his coat tighter around him. “I have no god but myself. Thank you though.”

I drove home alone, and watched TV until I fell asleep. I used to hate TV, but these days it is my most frequent companion. I'm sure his night on the bench was miserably cold. It is tragic how isolated we have become in the modern world. For social creatures we are extraordinarily distrustful and detached from each other. We shun each other and even shun God. Our individualism doesn't result in much happiness, just coldness.