Understanding Authentic Community
Legendary Irish football coach Lou Holtz encapsulated the majesty of Notre Dame in a laconic yet ambiguous statement: “If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none is adequate.” Notre Dame’s mystique transcends written or verbal explanations because it can only be understood experientially.
The spirit of Notre Dame is experienced in community. A genuine sense of familial kinship pervades the interactions of alumni, faculty and students. Everyone who has experienced this phenomenon—from recent graduates to the oldest alum—misses it. Indeed, the Notre Dame community is palpable enough that many find they are never quite able to replace it.
“Community” is an amorphous and fluid term, avoiding uniform characterizations. It can describe anything from a group of organisms sharing a geographic environment to a group of people sharing common beliefs. Yet despite the definitional opacity of “community,” the coronation of Notre Dame as a model community reveals that there are implicit normative standards for what a community should be.
So what, exactly, makes a good community?
Aristotle addresses this question in The Politics, writing that “man is a social animal … society is something that precedes the individual.” This radical statement is not an endorsement of collectivism, but rather a reflection on the proper reciprocation between the individual and community.
Aristotelian teleology proffers that an individual’s ultimate end is happiness, which is achieved by the accumulation of virtue. The city-state or polis provides the best environment for the inculcation of virtue, as human beings perfect virtue through communal dialogue, exchange and service. Increasing individual virtue of the citizenry in turn provides the community with a new level of human flourishing, ideally perpetuating a cycle of continuous moral improvement for the whole of society.
Virtue as the culmination of communal living challenges basic American assumptions about the individualistic “pursuit of happiness.” Juridically defined by Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the pursuit of happiness constitutes “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This preeminence of the individual will poses a problem for community. Without a fixed conceptualization of the good or a common means for pursuing it, social dynamics and human kinship are weakened through their subordination to the pursuit of individual fulfillment.
Groups of like-minded individuals still relate to one another and form various subcultures, but this comes at the expense of common unity as a whole. Competing factions inevitably pursue irreconcilable visions of the common good. This too often devolves into tribalism, xenophobia and jingoism—the classification and demonization of others instead of the realization of their common humanity.
Yet despite the discrepancies between the Aristotelian polis and American society, there are a number of inescapable commonalities. American individualism cannot abrogate the necessity of some type of relationality, as it is only because of human relationships that individuals come to exist in the first place. Unity is similarly necessary, whether it be a shared goal, interest or locale. Finally, each societal arrangement seeks to successfully negotiate the optimal balance between the individual and the wider community.
This juxtaposition of Aristotelian and American ways of life manifests itself interestingly in an intentional community. Intentional communities are designed around a common social or religious vision, often embracing alternative lifestyles. Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) fits this mold, encouraging the four values of community living, simplicity, spirituality and social justice. Within my intentional community, it has been hard to adapt to the hybridity of communal obligations and possessions, and individual preferences and decisions.
Indeed, I have found community to be the most challenging part of my service. Sharing two cars between seven housemates, assuming responsibility in cooking and cleaning for the community and discussing each of our purchases on a shoestring budget have proven overwhelming at times. I have even neglected myself, distracted by the demands of the community.
My six housemates and I come from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Differences in values, geographic locations and religious and political beliefs, however, make it difficult to reach a common vision for the community.
Each person has different standards for “simplicity,” for example. One of our most intense discussions was the decision to put wireless internet in our house. Decisions are supposed to be made by consensus—a difficult and time-consuming process. After 30 minutes of discussion, it became clear that everyone wanted Wi-Fi with the exception of one individual. While no one directly pressured him, it was implicitly obvious that this was the communal expectation. He dejectedly conceded and now uses the internet himself.
To portray the careful maintenance of our community dynamic as majoritarian would be an unfair characterization. Once a week, our house makes a concerted effort to spend quality time together. During this community night, individual housemates take turns suggesting activities for group participation like karaoke, cultural festivals and even volunteering for other events or organizations. Although there have been some community nights I did not enjoy, each has provided a plethora of new life experiences and given me a greater awareness of the wider location in which I live.
Similarly, community cannot be constrained to the walls of our house. Our neighborhood in Southwest Detroit is called Mexicantown. I am surrounded by a number of taquerias, grocery stores and tortilla factories. Outside of a penchant for Mexican food and an elementary understanding of Spanish from my grade school years, I have little in common with my neighborhood.
Despite this fact, our neighbors have been incredibly welcoming, providing assistance in times of dire need. Rafael, who lives across the street, can barely speak English, but has taken it upon himself to prevent the theft of any of our delivered packages. Similarly, our next door neighbors brought us shovels and salt and worked alongside us for over an hour as we attempted to free our car from a snowbank. These people were mere acquaintances, helping not because of some ulterior motive, but solely because they saw other human beings in need.
My experiences working alongside at-risk youth at Covenant House Michigan have led me to encounter many of the same scenarios and draw the same conclusions. A majority of the youth and staff are African American—I am the only Caucasian staff member who works with the youth on a regular basis. I grew up in the suburbs with a mother and a father and have few common life experiences with youth who were abandoned or orphaned or raised in foster care.
I have no problem connecting with the youth on a face-to-face basis, both because of our similarity in age and our willingness to help one another. Youth know that I am there solely because I want to help, and they often come to me looking for advice, help with a résumé or transportation to work. Similarly, the youth I befriend help me understand their situation and assist me in keeping everyone calm and focused when I am leading a group or overseeing the House.
There is an unmistakable bond of kinship present in any authentic community—be it the Notre Dame family, my house in Mexicantown or the youth of Covenant House. Yes, Aristotle and America have their own ways of splitting hairs when it comes to defining community and the purpose of human existence. At the basis of it all, though, is a selfless gift to others with the acknowledgment that any other member of the community would do the same. Although I have found these communities lacking in their own ways, I am proud to call myself a member of each of them and I know they have played an integral role in my betterment as a person today.
Bob Burkett is a current Jesuit Volunteer living and working in Detroit, Michigan. He would like to wish Lilia, Tim and Alexandra the best in their Irish Rover endeavors this year. For comments, questions, or concerns he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.