Rod Dreher

Sharon Astyk ponders why devotion to church and community organizations has declined so much in the last couple of generations, taking as her examples her shul and her grandmother’s experience in Eastern Star, the ladies auxiliary of the Freemasons. Sharon considers the usual explanations — e.g., that women are working more outside the home today, and don’t have time to devote to those organizations that they once did — and finds them true, to a certain extent, but also incomplete. Excerpt:

It is true that people worked long hours in the past – but the pattern of those hours was radically different. Community thrived when more people lived and worked embedded in their community. Now most Americans spend a third of their waking hours in a workplace community, often completely unconnected from the community proximate to their home. Their co-workers may live an hour or more from them, if they are commuting from different directions. Their neighbors, like them, are only home in the evenings and on weekends, and often not that much then. Instead of belonging to connected social institutions, if they are members of community organizations, they are probably members of completely different ones.
As someone who works from home, I recognize the distinct advantages of that situation for both community and domestic work. I can throw on a load of laundry during my lunch break. Because my husband can do some of his work from home, while I do all of mine, we do not have to work extra hours to pay for daycare for our children – one of us is always with them. It is possible for me to stop by a neighbor’s house and drop something off in the afternoon before the bus comes or to stop what I’m doing when someone stops by to say hello. The problem is that there are increasingly few neighbors to stop by. Certainly no one from my shul lives in my rural area, and most of my neighbors are gone during the day. All of us begrudge our evenings and weekends because at some point we have to let the kids plays, do the laundry, fix the deck, visit Grandma…
And even with my advantages, I find it hard to find time to go to meetings and show up to do my share of the event cooking, or planning or other work. The price of my husband and I splitting the childcare is that we treasure our precious time alone. The price of living cheaply and working less is that at the end of our workdays and our farmdays and our homeschool days, we often cannot muster the energy to go somewhere. Instead of looking forward to getting out of the house, we want nothing so much as time at home. So I rely on older women and men – many of them retired, to carry the enormous burden of holding up our community. I know that when these women and men were younger, they did more than I do. I also know that when they were younger, they were not laboring under the double burden of a life so divided by space, by numbers. And it was in a culture where service to these institutions was taken as a given.

Sharon goes on to talk about why this is so, and discusses how the way we live in relation to our communities is different today. We are living far more private lives. And she also explores how her grandmother, “the poster child for community,” failed — and Sharon tells a heart-rending story about an aging, sick woman in her synagogue who taught her an important lesson. Read the entire post — there’s a lot there.
We met a couple of our neighbors yesterday, both lovely, warm people, one of whom has lived in this neighborhood all her life. We got to talking, and they said that if we ever wanted to be entertained, we ought to turn up at the community association meeting sometime. They said it’s a collection of obsessively gripey people who seem determined to stop any change at all, no matter how beneficial, from coming to the neighborhood. They gave a couple of examples of entrepreneurs who wanted to open food places — one a small cafe, another a small grocery store — in abandoned commercial spaces (the area is zoned mixed-use commercial and residential). “You wouldn’t believe the complaints,” said one of our neighbors. “They whined about the extra foot traffic the new places would bring, they whined about how the smell of food was going to ruin their lives.” The picture these people painted of the community association did not make it sound like a healthy organization, but rather a collection of malcontents who, rather than trying to direct necessary change toward healthy ends, don’t want any change at all. Listening to these neighbors — who, again, struck us as delightful, helpful, open people — talk about the way the community association carries on really discouraged me from wanting to get involved. It sounds like this dysfunctional band of complainers.

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