I am because we are

Eric Utne at work. Click for larger image.

For the past two or three years, every Utne Reader editorial salon—those bimonthly gatherings where we ask a group of 8 to 12 invited guests “What have you been thinking and obsessing about lately?”—has turned at some point to the issue of community. Why do so many of us feel the lack of it? What are the forces that undermine it in our culture? Why are there so many tribal wars and ethnic conflicts raging across the nation and the globe? How can traditional tribal communities deal with the forces that would destroy them? And is it possible to create real multicultural community for ourselves in the modern world?

I’ve been interested in community since living and working in communal arrangements in the 60s and 70s. But living with 20 other macrobiotic devotees was often too much for a group of people raised on the Lone Ranger, Catcher in the Rye, and The Stranger. We simply weren’t very good at it. And trying to run a magazine (New Age Journal by group consciousness and consensus decision-making often turned into group tyranny. Still, something felt natural and right about being in groups. Then, in 1997, Margaret Mead confirmed my feelings when she told me that “99 percent of the time humans have lived on this planet we’ve lived in groups of 12 to 36 people. Only during times of war, or what we have now, which is the psychological equivalent of war, does the nuclear family prevail, because it’s the most mobile unit that can ensure the survival of the species. But for the full flowering of the human spirit, we need groups, tribes, community.”

I suspect that most readers of this book would not consider themselves “tribal.” Your community, if you feel you have one at all, is probably defined by friends and family scattered across town and around the country. You may say that you are part of several communities, but these are probably more accurately described as networks of people with whom you work or share a particular hobby or interest.

Most of the people I know, indeed, most Americans, haven’t a clue as to the social skills necessary to live in a real community. We tend to live, work, and hang out with people of similar education, income, age, rce, physical attributes, and worldview. We rarely, if ever, have to deal with the Other. We put our older people in nursing homes and our young ones in day-care centers. Lawbreakers are kept behind bars and the physically disabled and mentlly ill are kept out of sight. Through our tax dollars we ask trained service personnel to handle thes others for us so tht we can get on with our careers and our personal growth.

We modern Westerners have much to learn about community. How did the ancients weave their intricate and time-tested webs of inclusion? What do the salons of pre-Revolutionary France have to teach us about the community’s need for conversations, and especially for listening and speaking from the heart? What do tribal people know about ritual place and the invisible world that can help us in our efforts to rebuild community for ourselves and our children?

Claude Whitmyer has assembled a veritable pantheon of some of the best thinkers and visionaries of our time. Their writings on where we’ve come from, who we are, and where we might (or ought to) be going, are the best collection I’ve seen on the subject of community, a subject that will soon be widely recognized as among the most critical issues humans have to face in this decade and indeed well into the next millennium.

Perhaps these writers will help begin the conversations that will lead to the re-creation of real community. Perhaps some day our children will know the experience of community conveyed by this common phrase of the Xhosa people of southern Africa: “I am because we are.”

Eric Utne, Founder, Editor-in-Chief Utne Reader Minneapolis, MN September 1992

Copyright © 1994 by Eric Utne. All rights reserved. Originally published as the Foreword to In the Company of Others: Making Community in the Modern World (Tarcher/Putnam, 1993). Permission is hereby granted to link to this page, but not to copy or reproduce this content in any form electronic or otherwise.

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