New York Times’ columnist David Brooks has recently written (“The Haimish Line,” August 29, 2011) about his summer trip to Africa with his family. Brooks describes two types of experiences that he and his family had: primitive camps at which guests and staff socialized, eating and sometimes playing together; more luxurious camps at which guests and staff were rigidly segregated, with staff serving guests.
Upon returning home, he discovered that the entire family had enjoyed the experience more at the primitive camps despite the lack of showers, more basic sleeping arrangements, etc. In spite of the brief stays, a sense of community between guests and staff developed at all of the primitive camps, a fact to which Brooks attributes his family having had a better time.
Wealth seems to distance people from one another. Certainly, some level of affluence provides an essential minimum standard of living and perhaps even some unnecessary but much appreciated creature comforts. However, beyond a certain level of affluence, increased wealth seems associated with diminished levels of community that in turn decrease happiness and satisfaction.
In conversation with a friend, I suggested that increased wealth might create in many individuals a desire to exhibit their prosperity, to “show off” their affluence. My friend responded with examples from his life of people with whom he had once been close but with whom, over time, relationships had become more distant. In each instance, my friend believed the distance a function of the other person’s increased wealth. (He also cited an example of a friend who had remained close although this person’s wealth had grown significantly – in short, these assessments are generalizations, not absolutes.)
Then I read a program that seeks to put veterans to work in remote areas of state and national parks. The veterans attracted to the program learn new skills and hope that a temporary job may lead to a career in a park. Program proponents contend that the program is great for veterans having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Vets work as members of small teams, often in remote locations, performing a task of public service that may entail some risk – all analogous to military service. The pay is only $8 per hour, but that beats living on the street.
The commonality between Brooks’ vacation and the veterans’ employment program is the emphasis on community. Americans increasingly live in isolation from one another. Mobility often weakens or dissolves ties with extended family. Over-scheduling and changing priorities devalues the nuclear family, making leisurely, shared meals all too rare. Texting is eclipsing not only face-to-face communication but also phone conversations as the medium of choice. Yet frequent superficial interaction cannot replace in-depth communication, always a time intensive activity.
Contrast our lifestyle with what we know about Jesus’ lifestyle:
· He walked, allowing much time for reflection and conversation.
· He enjoyed eating meals with friends, taking time to enjoy their companionship.
· He sought time for private reflection and prayer.
· He cultivated friendships with a relatively small, select group of people even though he interacted more superficially with large numbers.
One of the things I like about being part of a reasonably small worshipping community is that participation can aid in cultivating those same habits.