railroad, tracks, telephone cables, deserted, black and white, old


E.D. Kain had a fine quote from Wendell Berry that provides a good definition of community to start any discussion of place and limits:

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.

This last part of the last sentence strikes as very important, because it seems to me that this not what many of us are conditioned to call to mind when we hear the word freedom.  This is a freedom among neighbors, and not a freedom over and against other individuals or apart from social relationships.  Something that has long perplexed me is how Americans have persuaded themselves that an important part of their freedom is to be measured by the degree of non-interference of their neighbors in their lives and the distance–psychological and social–they have achieved from other people.  Measured by the latter, life here in Hyde Park is very free.  However, knowledge of one another has seemed from my perspective extremely limited as people are constantly arriving and departing with the academic seasons, and so life is rather restricted.  Related to this measure of freedom is the desire for mobility and the hoped-for ‘escape’ from one’s own neighbors, perhaps the perfect expression of which is the automobile, which permits constant proximity to others who exist mainly as obstacles and causes of frustration rather than, as the shared road might suggest, as companions on a journey to a common destination.  It is remarkable how much modern Americans travel in and around the cities where they live, and how few pilgrimages we make.  This is a function of not understanding what freedom is, which is a freedom among and not a freedom apart from.

Another definition of a community might be people who return to and remain in a common place for shared festivals.  While I reside in Hyde Park, the real community to which I belong is my parish, which sits over forty miles away in the west suburbs.  Entering into the season of Orthodox Lent as we do today, my thoughts turn to the theme of exile.  In the Polyeleos sung during the Triodion and Lent, a passage from Psalm 136 (LXX) follows verses that evoke the memory of the Exile in Babylon:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Alleluia.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. Alleluia.

For there they that had taken us captive required of us a song;
and they that had carried us away required of us a hymn, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion. Alleluia.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Alleluia.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. Alleluia.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem as my chief joy. Alleluia.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Down with it, down with it, even to the foundation thereof. Alleluia.

O wretched daughter of Babylon, happy shall he be that shall reward thee as thou hast served us. Alleluia.

Happy shall he be, that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock. Alleluia.

In the end, we are all exiles here below held captive by our fallen state and desires, and we are remembering that state of exile during this Lenten season and calling to mind our true home in the Heavenly City.  Yet in our earthly existence we have accomplished another very strange thing, which is to exile ourselves voluntarily from the places we have called home and to condition ourselves to think of this cycle of repeated exiling as normal and even desirable.  Not only do I suspect that most Americans would find this hymn strange, but for a great many of us there is no longer a Jerusalem for us to forget, for it has already been forgotten if it was ever there at all.  In this, we have not renounced our own wills, as monastics do, but have increasingly cut ourselves off from others for our own sakes in almost inverse proportion to our ability to communicate with them.  As John Lukacs wrote in At the End of an Age:

The fantastic development of communications at the end of the Modern Age makes it possible for almost everyone to see or speak to people across the world in an instant–at the same time that real communications, meaning the talking and listening of people to each other, including parents and children, husbands and wives, even lovers, has become rarer and rarer–in sum: when personal communications are breaking down.

The farther we are able to reach, the more removed we seem to be from where we are, because as we lose the definition and limits given to us by a place the less we can know others, and so the less free we become in a world that offers us the illusion of no limits made possible through technology.

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  1. For the Greeks, ostracism from their city (usually their natal city) was a serious punishment, and a form of civic death. I don’t think we can emphasize enough the necessity for limits of all kinds, including physical, for a life that’s both lived rightly and lived well–by which I mean that fundamental happiness that comes from belonging to a certain place and a certain people (probably about a couple hundred of them; probably not many more; without a doubt including several whom we’d frequently like to shake).

  2. True freedom (maybe to use today’s buzzword we can say ‘sustainable freedom’) requires discipline and limits. Maybe what is important is one’s connection to the setting/structuring of those limits. In a true community, that responsibility, that connection, comes into being over time as one proves to be a responsible grown-up member of said community.

    Modern communications technology, by providing an illusion of limitlessness, by encouraging us to equate limitlessness with freedom, indeed runs the risk of letting the civic virtues atrophy. It’s just not fashionable to think about limits when the (virtual) world seems to expand infinitely before you. That’s not to say it’s impossible, however.

    PS: as an avid reader of Eunomia I’m excited about this new venture!

  3. Communication is being truncated by technology. Telephones allow an approximation of a conversation, but without the supposed 80% non-verbal communication. Instant Messenger is that minus the verbal part–an approximation of an approximation. Email is an approximation of a formal letter–where has the art of writing letters gone? Mass communication has eliminated distance, but has not created nearness.

    @ Katherine Dalton

    I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition in which “death” was literally to be outside the company of one’s fellow man. If immortality in poetry is a goal, then it is only possible within the the collective memory of one’s home. This explains Socrates’ (apparently) arrogant refusal to go into exile. But this sense of identity has long since been lost. What is needed to recover it?

  4. As Daniel stated, technology has been a benefit – instant communications and relations to almost anybody in the world – but also a severe detriment – the deterioration of personal relationships. More so, technology has facilitated and advertised the ease of non-personal relationships. Websites such as facebook, in my opinion, discourage the need to physically connect to people because it easier to virtually do connect. Day by day we are further removed from the need of a physical community because a virtual one suits are fast paced, constantly changing needs (how much those “needs” are constructed by advertising is a separate question).

    I have also observed the role the media has played in breaking down communities and pushing individual freedom. Local news stories in my area on the country (Central Valley area in CA) always seem to highlight burglaries, murders, and general crime, which to me, contains the underlying message of, “who can you trust?” Little coverage is given to local community leaders and their efforts, and when it is, it is a simple ‘wow, look at them’ segment. There appears to never be any way for the media to forge a relationship between members of the community. As a result, many people feel lost because they have a distrust of their neighbors and no outlet to be involved in the community. I have felt this “lost” feeling at times as well.

    The challenge it seems is how to build a community in the face of all these barriers. How do you convince people that convenient technology is detrimental to their community and well being? How do you convince people that despite the material success of untapped individual freedom, they should shift their focus to community freedom and freedom “among neighbors?”

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