Alone in the crowd

Published in the Courier Mail 28 Nov 2003

MOST of us have experienced it at some time or another. The sheer panic and the dread in the pit of your stomach as you realise the awful truth — you’ve left your mobile phone at home.

How will people contact you? What if someone wants to talk to you or, more importantly, meet you? Even worse, what if you miss out on something?
According to a recent IDC Australia report, Australians are showing a surprisingly strong growth in the continued uptake of mobile phone subscriptions. They estimate that by the end of this year, three out of four Australians will use mobiles, and this figure is expected to increase even more.

Maybe this growth shows just how much we love technology. There are so many amazing functions which new phones present us with. (Of course, many of us can’t work out those amazing functions and never use them, but that’s another thing altogether!)

I wonder though if it’s a reflection of a deeper desire. A desire to be connected to other people, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves — to be a part of a community.

If community is what we desire, the reality sits in stark contrast. Look around us. The corner shop is disappearing, replaced by large, efficient supermarkets. Fences are getting higher. Neighbours can go weeks or months without seeing each other. Since 1986, Australia has had a 64 per cent increase in the number of people living alone and a 53 per cent increase in the number of single parent families. Our society is fragmenting around us.

This social trend is not exclusive to Australia. US author Eugene Peterson describes the American “as a person without a community — part of a crowd, not of a group”.
The UN Secretary-General, Koffi Annan, wrote in 1999 that “sometimes the world seems not to be coming together but falling apart”.

We are a lonely people. In our increasingly globalised world, we affect each other’s actions like never before, yet we do not affect each other’s hearts. Chatting on the telephone largely has been replaced by e-mail or SMS. The Internet allows us to make many transactions without ever having to interact with other people. We are exchanging more information, yet we are communicating less.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies suggests that the sense of social isolation we feel leads to disempowerment and alienation. One of the greatest and most dangerous social diseases of our time is loneliness. Mother Theresa believed loneliness was evidence of the greatest hunger, the hunger to be loved. We are social beings. Our humanity is expressed in our relationships with one another.

F.S.C. Northrup, in The Meeting of East and West, says that the deepest things about any civilisation are its assumptions and beliefs about what makes up the unseen universe. Here we may see a key as to why we aren’t experiencing the depth of community we long for.

We have lost our common assumption and belief about the unseen. The Judeo-Christian belief system used to be the dominant world view both for individual Australians and for the operation of our government, education system, courts and industry. This allowed us to communicate on the deep level of shared belief.
Communities were able to agree on the broader nature of right and wrong and, as such, shared common goals. However, not only did they share a common vision for their neighbourhood, they also largely agreed on how to get there.

NOW, however, we have widely accepted pluralism, with its equal affirmation of all world views. We have created a smorgasbord of beliefs and suitable behaviours.
Sadly though, after sampling and enjoying the diversity on offer, we find that, as a community, we still walk away hungry. We are hungry for authentic relationships, hungry for community.

Author Kurt Vonnegut said, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

This is indeed a noble and necessary goal — one that can only be achieved by first daring to discuss what shared assumptions and beliefs we will base our community on. Only then can we create a community that is defined by more than a shared postcode. Anyway, I have to go — my mobile is ringing!