Chasing a sense of community by the book

There are times in life when the goodwill of others is more obvious than usual. When you are walking using crutches, it is rare that a stranger doesn’t rush forward to hold a door open, or begin a conversation about that time they injured their own foot.

Another is after you have had a baby, when a steady stream of well-wishers peer into the stroller to give compliments and advice or offer to help you lift the pram onto the tram and there is a general sense of joy at the presence of a very young human.

But, is this sense of community and goodwill something that we can find without going to the lengths of breaking a leg or giving birth to a child?

Recently I attended a talk from a visiting writer at the Melbourne Town Hall. Beforehand there was excited chatter, and the woman next to me joked as she squeezed past me into her seat. Then there was silence as we all, seemingly in unison, angled our faces towards the stage in anticipation. And it felt good to be part of a big group, gathered together for the same reason, with a similar curiosity and enthusiasm for a book.

It is a feeling that is at the heart of festivals, theatre performances and concerts, arts events such as White Night and possibly even religious services. While we could listen to music, watch drama on TV or pray in the security and privacy of our homes, the sense of community, goodwill and like minds brings far more to live, joint experiences.

The Washington Post explored the phenomenon in an article on the experience of gathering to view art or performance as part of an audience.

“We’re surrounded by strangers, bombarded with unusual images and often faced with a wordless language of symbols. Yet, on a good night, we generally laugh more, cry more and enjoy ourselves more at a live performance than when we’re watching TV at home.”

The writer goes on to explain,

“Our brains like to share emotions with others. This is just one reason that seeing a live performance – a concert, play, opera, etc. – is a neural rush… In effect, your billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that yoke together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force. This happens from the moment we automatically tune ourselves to the audience.”

It is not just with other members of the audience with whom we connect, but also with the performers. And in the case of an author talk like the one I attended, with the writer who is speaking.

The search for this sense of connection and community is not just evident in audiences at performances, but in those who enter marathons in which they have to jostle for space among thousands of other runners, in those who join book clubs and commit to reading the same book at the same time and meeting each month to talk about it, and in those who attend yoga classes when they could cheaply and easily practice in front of a DVD at home. It is in those who continue to visit cinemas where food is overpriced and seating is tight to watch something they could have seen on their plasma screens before long. We are drawn to each other and inspired by each other.

Speaking to the organiser of a philosophy talk in Melbourne recently, I was told this type of event had been organised to ‘test the water’. She was surprised by how popular it had been, with sessions selling out quickly. She told me that it was clear that people were looking for a forum to hear about ideas and issues, together. It struck me that it wasn’t just the ideas and issues that were important, but the act of coming together.

One of my favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut said of the value of community,

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

So, while HBO and Netflix might be tempting, and there is great pleasure in retreating to your own couch after a day at work, there is also great appeal in chasing a sense of community, filling gaps left by declining church congregations, disparate families and impersonal neighbourhoods. After all, we haven’t lost the desire to come together with a sense of goodwill – we just have to create and seek out the new opportunities to do so which don’t involve broken bones or a nine-month gestation.

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