Imagine that instead of reading these words on a screen, you are sitting across from me over a cup of coffee. You’re sharing your stories, and I’m sharing mine. As we talk, we notice many things about each other, because our words are just a small part of what we communicate. I watch your eyes, which may be focused or may be darting to a cell phone. The corners of your mouth might turn up slightly, or you might raise your eyebrows when you’re provoked. You might hear my breath change or notice a subtle shift in the pitch of my voice.
As we learn about another person in these many ways, we have a harder time dismissing them, because even when they say something we disagree with, we have these other indications that we are with a living, breathing, flawed yet miraculous being who struggles and falls short, just as we do.
On my road trip last year, I realized when I listened to the conversations I’d recorded how often they took place over coffee or a meal.
I stopped at a harvest festival at a small farm outside Louisville, Kentucky, about halfway through my trip, arriving just as people were lining up for a sumptuous meal of tamales, salads, and beans. Most of the ingredients had been grown just a few feet away from the front yard of the farmhouse, where we sat on hay bales as we ate and talked. A band played on the front porch, and couples got up to dance. Nearby, kids and adults picked up a game of soccer. Newcomers kept on arriving, filling their plates with food.
Nelson Escobar, an immigrant from El Salvador, and Elmer Zavala, originally from Honduras, started the farm. A dozen people of many backgrounds till the land, each raising three crops, each sharing their harvest with the others in the collective so all can have a varied local diet.
The food is great, but for Escobar and Zavala, the sense of community is key.
“What I really love about this is the collective,” Zavala said when I asked why he helped start this farm. “I love sharing the harvest. And when we grow it ourselves, we don’t have to worry that our food was grown in conditions that exploit workers.”
“Because we’re humans, doing work together is really satisfying,” Escobar added.
Collectives can have their disputes. Sometimes conflicts tear groups apart. Still, we learn deeply when we tune into how others see the world, and that can help us make sense of the world and of ourselves.
We learn deeply when we tune into how others see the world.
When we try to work together at a large scale, it’s much more difficult: Issues get too abstract, and we fall into oversimplification. We stereotype each other, turning unique human beings into “illegals,” “soccer moms,” “thugs,” “suits.” And ideas become rigid ideologies. Nuance, tolerance, and empathy get lost. Fear of the unfamiliar creates the conditions for a mob mentality, racism, and violence.
Likewise, we’re more likely to feel isolated, powerless, disengaged, and worse—we’re more likely to die early. Isolation is as dangerous to our health as smoking, Judith Shulevitz wrote in The New Republic in 2013. Lonely people are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.
In order to thrive, we have to be “in touch” with others, to internalize their humanity. Otherwise, we spiral into illness, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and a “me first” ideology, becoming insatiable consumers and second-rate citizens.
We evolved to live in community, and that seems to be the scale where we can best navigate the complexities of life—the experiences of people not like us, the fragility and resilience of the web of life that surrounds us.
When we live connected to a community, we are more likely to become champions for one another, not just for ourselves. It’s a small step from there to becoming advocates for the larger community, even for the community of all life. From there, the idea of the common good is not so hard to grasp.