Communities have their own kind of DNA. They came together over years of development, experience, leadership, tough times, migration, ups and down of economies, artistic expression, politics and citizenship, to name but a few. Whether we are born into the place where we now live or moved into it at some point, it has special characteristics that existed long before we came along. Often, despite its drawbacks, we choose where we live because we like what history has made of our habitat.
A person can spend a lifetime in such environs and add little to their overall community. The needs of survival mean they must take from it; but if they wish their community to progress they must give back. This is the essence of citizenship – dovetailing our individual identities into the narrative that is the place where we live. If enough of us get involved, it is refined; if we grow lax, it declines.
This is now a vital time in many of our communities. Modern global economic pressures have aggressively challenged our cities and towns to such an extent that what they were, and are, are now in danger of being lost in our rush to economic efficiencies. We often most recognize our affections when we come closing to losing what we care for.
This past Valentine’s Day I wrote a post on Romancing the Community. I wrote it because, after living in London, Ontario, for 40 years now I have come to realize that I truly do love it. Did I not care for it before? The only answer to that is: not as much as I do now. It has taken me time to realize that this devotion is becoming pronounced through the knowledge that some of my community’s DNA is in danger of being lost. I’m not afraid of progress, but I refuse to embrace it if what is involved is the denial of what has been great in my city and helped to make me who I am.
In a very real sense the true issue of citizenship and community is all about identity. I worry that some of the best parts of my city are fading away in what is a kind of collective amnesia. Like others, I watch in concern as politics makes enemies where they didn’t exist before, or when it severs the tie between politics and the public/private harmony.
Then again, I have to come to terms with the reality that it’s not all about where I live; it’s about me, too. We have principles, beliefs, affections, and, yes, hope, but over time we can lose our ardour for them just through living in a time of diminished returns. It can become easier to just say “forget it; nothing changes, so I’m just going to concentrate on my own life.” Suddenly we are in the worst of all possible worlds – personal and collective disillusionment and idleness. In such a state, community and personal identities run the danger of being lost.
When we are young, we experiment with so many things in some grand effort at finding our identity. It’s like trying on different masks repeatedly. Maturity eventually arrives when we discover that we are actually the person who doesn’t wear a mask. Identity becomes clear in such moments of illumination. We learn that, like our respective communities, we have a center, something that grounds us – a place for ourselves, and others.
Perhaps the greatest benefit is discovering who we are is the sense of purpose that comes along with it. We begin to fight for what we have discovered, or, in my case I opted to fight harder for something I worried was being lost. We awake to the discovery that countless forces are arrayed against our identity, seeking to pull us away from we have learned about ourselves. We get drawn off by the allurements of money, things, BLING, just as easily as we do with pain, regret, a sense of loss, or disillusionment. How we personally deal with the threat of lost identity will ultimately determine whether our communities lose theirs.
I recall reading of the Belgian poet, Emile Verhaeren – a fervent pacifist and dedicated humanitarian. The invasion of his town by German soldiers in World War One had a profound effect on him that caught him totally by surprise. He awoke to discover that his heart was filled with hatred. Looking in the mirror one morning he came to the realization of how he had changed and how he was bringing a negative influence to the town that once was the object of his affection. He sat down and wrote wearily:
Since it seems that in this state of hatred my conscience becomes diminished, I dedicate these pages, with emotion, to the man I used to be.
Are we diminished? Are we the best we can be? Again, this is the core of citizenship. Innately we care for others and seek their improvement along with our own. To lose that impulse is to lose ourselves and our communities in the process. Now more than ever we have to know why we matter. We must ensure we are not the victims of someone else’s design. To be a citizen is to fight the eternal struggle of rescuing ourselves from the seemingly mindless flow of events. The moment we separate our own identity from that of the community is the moment when both are lost.