Community. The irony of my wondering whether I’ve ever really had one at all is rich. Why? Because for the past 20 years I have been a protégé of the world’s leading expert on community, Robert D. Putnam. He’s the guy who wrote Bowling Alone back in the year 2000, in which he laid bare in frightening detail the fact that by nearly every measure, America has been experiencing a marked decline in community, connection, and social capital for over half a century. I first encountered this thesis when I took his now-famous seminar, Community in America, in my sophomore year at Harvard. I was stunned. Captivated. Galvanized. I poured myself into the final paper for the class like I had found my calling in life.
I went on to pursue the question of how to rebuild America’s lost social capital in a myriad of ways. Volunteering, flirting with politics and activism, studying intentional communities such as those that came out of the Catholic Worker movement, reading the Literature of Social Reflection under the tutelage of Robert Coles. I also enlisted Professor Putnam to advise my honors thesis, which I wrote about the Settlement House movement, made famous by the progressive-era champion of community, Jane Addams. I was admitted to a masters program at Cambridge, in which I planned to study the intellectual history of American communitarian movements, but ultimately declined the offer in favor of doing missionary work, because I was hungry to get out into the world and live and breathe a life oriented around connection.
Later I worked for Professor Putnam at the Saguaro Seminar, a think tank of sorts composed of some of the most prominent theorists and doers in the field of community building. This morphed into a writing job in which I spent thousands of hours doing participant observation in ten different religious communities across America, which I then wrote up as three chapters of Putnam and Campbell’s book, American Grace.
It was my long-felt conflicting impulse to understand in theory but live in practice “community” that then drove me to apply for PhD programs in Anthropology, but abandon them in favor of the lived expedition into communities unknown that is the Peace Corps. While waiting for our paperwork to go through, my husband and I linked up with a Catholic Worker house and flirted with raising our family in an intentional community. And when our placement came through, we were sent to Jordan—a collectivistic culture—where we lived for two years in the fishbowl of a small village, and where my heart and mind chewed endlessly on the beauty of dense communal networks, and their very real dark side.
I’ve had a strange and wandering experience during my 38 years in this world, but if I had to pick a single theme that seems to tie it all together, it’s community. I’ve studied it, experimented with it, been fascinated by it, been frightened by it. I’ve reoriented my life around the dream and promise of community and connection more times than I can count.
And yet, looking back, it always has been more a dream than a reality in my own daily life. I’m not one of those people who seems to have more friends than they know what to do with. The opposite is true, actually. A couple of weeks ago I had to make a 2-hour drive by myself and thought it might be fun to call a friend and catch up. But when I thought of who might like to hear from me—which of all the numbers in my phone I could dial up and hear on the other end, “oh, hi! I’m so glad you called!”—only two came to mind. It was a jarring realization.
I have begun to see that the hole in my soul that has recently been calling out for attention is in the shape of something I have thought more about than almost anyone, but, in reality, have less of than almost everyone.