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Good Fences, Good Neighbors, Good Grief
The other day, I met a friend for breakfast at a local café here in Seattle. Outside was wet, cool, overcast—a typical fall day in the Northwest. But inside the restaurant was cozy and warm and invited a long, lingering conversation. We jumped around from topic to topic, until we landed on the laundry facilities in our respective apartment buildings. How we got there, I have no idea.
More often than not, when it’s time to do laundry, we have to first clean up the messes left by the other tenants—the scattered and smeared dirt, the spilled detergents and stain removers, the telltale lint and chemically treated paper sheets used to soften (and chemically treat) their drying clothes. For me, cleaning up after my neighbors has become such a part of my routine that I often bring an extra towel or rag along when I do my laundry, just to be prepared for what I’ll find.
But laundry facilities occupied our conversation for only a short time, and we quickly turned from dirty clothes to dirty public places in general. (After all, how much is there to say about a laundry room?) We have both observed that when it comes to shared spaces—those for which we can’t claim direct ownership—we seem to have a cultural mindset that precludes taking responsibility for anything we don’t consider part of our personal sphere, even if we’re paying hefty rents or taxes or fees to support them.
There are, of course, those who have little regard for anything around them—personal or otherwise—but I believe they’re in the minority. For most of us, our sense of responsibility falls squarely on the personal side, with little investment in what lies outside. This attitude doesn’t necessarily result in willful destruction, but certainly willful disregard. So what it we leave our newspapers sitting on the bus? So what if we don’t pick up the dog shit our pets drop in the park? So what if we leave our dirty cups in coffee shops for someone else to clean up?
My friend and I wondered whether this indifference to what is not our own is in part due to a diminished sense of community, that we take no pride in what is shared because we feel little sense of belonging to or participating in the environments that surround us. Every day, it seems, we’re encouraged to separate ourselves from others through our rampant consumerism and materialism and technological obsessions, each of which demand that we prioritize our personal gratification over the concerns of those around us. We might express our uneasiness about the environment and poverty and health care and civil rights, but if taking action means sacrificing our sense of personal space and possession—and the perceived comforts and conveniences they bring—chances are we’ll do little more than give lip service to our various causes.
That might seem quite a leap—from dirty laundry rooms to materialism to lack of community—and I wouldn’t rule out caffeine as our primary agitator. Still, I can’t help thinking that we’re steadily drifting away from any sense of community toward something more akin to separation. We stare at laptops and smartphones in isolation. We wear headsets and earphones in isolation. We drive cars and listen to radios in isolation. We watch TV and stream Netflix in isolation. We create cocoons that protect and segregate and remove us from having to interact with our neighbors or our families or our friends.
In the 1990s, the Dalai Lama wrote an essay called “The Global Community” in which he claims that the world’s populations are moving toward becoming a single people, a consequence of political and military alliances, industry and international trade, and worldwide communication.
Barriers that once existed as a result of distance, language, and race are quickly dissolving, and we’re being “drawn together by the grave problems we face: overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, and an environmental crisis that threatens our air, water, and trees, along with the vast number of beautiful life forms that are the foundation of existence on this small planet we share.”
Yet dissolving barriers do not equate to a global community. We have to work to make that happen. But the Dalai Lama isn’t advocating that we create movements or establish organizations to promote community-centric ideologies. He sees building community to be the responsibility of each individual:
In our present circumstances, none of us can afford to assume that somebody else will solve our problems; each of us must take his or her own share of universal responsibility…The real test of compassion is not what we say in abstract discussions but how we conduct ourselves in daily life.
Global forces might be drawing us together, but it takes individual commitment to create a community to reign in those forces.
Martin Luther King also liked to think in terms of community. As Grace Lee Boggs wrote in her 2004 article “The beloved community of Martin Luther King,” King believed that the black revolution was more than just a struggle for civil rights. “It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.”
King called for a shift from a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He viewed technology as a dictatorship that diminishes people because it eliminates the sense of participation. Growing material powers can result in greater peril if there is no proportionate growth of the soul:
When machines and computers, profit motive and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
King wanted to see individuals at the grassroots and community levels help to create new values, truths, relationships, and infrastructure. According to Boggs, he called for a “radical revolution in values and a new social system that goes beyond both capitalism, which he said is ‘too I-centered, too individualistic,’ and communism, which is ‘too collective, too statist.’”
Part of what influenced King’s conclusions was the Vietnam War. Before he was assassinated, he came out against the United State’s involvement in the conflict and advocated the concept of global citizenship. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best of their individual societies.”
But King was writing in the ’60s. Boggs wrote her article 35 years later, during the height of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Yet she believed we could still learn much from King and called on his revolutionary spirit to counter the Bush administration’s exploitation of “popular fears to carry out its agenda of military buildup, cutbacks in social programs, and suppression of dissent.” Boggs challenges us to become the change we want to see in the world:
By internalizing and sharing [King’s] concept of love as the readiness to go to any length to restore community, we can help more Americans recognize that the best way to insure our peace and security is not by warring against the ‘axis of evil’ but through a revolution of our own values and practice. That revolution must include a concept of global citizenship in which the life of an Afghan, Iraqi, North Korean, or Palestinian is as precious as an American’s.
That’s a lot to ask for in this era of iPads and Androids and HDTV. That would be a lot to ask for even if iPhone 5 hadn’t made its sensational debut. In fact, I’d be happy if I could just get my neighbors to clean up the laundry room after they’ve finished washing their piles of dirty clothes.
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