Divide to come together

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There’s an emptiness in me that comes from a lack of community.

A friend and I were reflecting on our youth. This friend and I come from similar backgrounds: East London bred sons of first generation Gujarati immigrants attending local state schools, both with strong ethnic community groups supporting and nurturing us through our childhoods. Together we played football and made vows we couldn’t keep at Woodcraft Folk and Cubs. We learnt to play the piano from the same cigarette puffing, cat owing 80-year-old woman who had arthritis in both hands but could seriously handle the Handel (badambam tschhh), and who lived in the biggest house of anyone we knew.

Although I was Jain and he Hindu, we shared something of an interest in Hindu mythology (mine coming from the incredible Amar Chitra Katha comics and watching the Mahabharata TV series every week after Gujarati school whilst eating khichi and his, I guess, from his own deep spirituality and his community). We collected Quest and Panini football stickers. We rolled with a tight-knit group of local friends, and all of our parents were also friends – and we all had that same Gujarati / immigrant / Ilford background.

Of course, childhood had its ups and downs, but we both remember it with fondness. A large part of what made it what it was was a deep sense of community. We had a close and consistent group of people around us shaped by similar experiences and backgrounds. We saw the same people regularly, strolling around to each others’ houses for a meal or to just hang out.

The things that brought us together in childhood are starting to fade. This friend no longer lives in Ilford and nor do I. I have travelled a little and consider myself, rather obnoxiously and cheesily, a “citizen of the world”. The ethnoreligious community group that was my parents’ main social structure is losing its footing as my generation no longer seem to associate with Jainism in the same way, nor have the same community needs as first-generation immigrants in an alien environment. Gujarati may be my mother tongue but it is not my first language and I speak it very poorly indeed – English is the language that defines my thinking. We are no longer Indian people living in the UK but British people who happen to have Indian origin. We are, by good fortune, richer, which seems to make our absolute need for community weaker (we can get by without help by hiring people in). Religion, race, language and country of origin no longer define me, so they can no longer be the fences I use to create my communities.

I need community. Most of us do, I think.

People can find communities. There are communities out there that base themselves on things that are not the same as the communities I knew well. I have friends involved in political parties or dedicating themselves to a cause – defining a community by what they believe in (kind of). I have friends who have built or work for companies that become their life, their home, their community.

I’ve not found communities like this.

I feel I have no community.

Why? I think there are a couple of reasons.

I am inherently conflicted in how I feel about the concept of community.

Community, by its nature, needs to be “divisive”. It is a fence around a specific group of people that define themselves by one characteristic or another. By creating our in-group we necessarily specify an out-group. Even “open” communities that claim to welcome all will eventually select for a specific group of people based on the values of the group.

The more I understand about myself and my world, the more I realise that these lines we draw are often arbitrary and, once they become engrained in our psyche, become dogmatic. Race, religion, nationality, political parties and other tools people use to create their community are social constructs and for most of us, our associations with them are randomly built based on where we happen to be born or who we happen to meet. My friend and I happened to be born in Ilford to immigrant parents of Gujarati origin. This coincidental commonality happens to be the basis of our friendship, but it has stuck because of shared values – many other people I used to spend a lot of time with back in the day of a similar background are no longer actively in my life. I feel amazed that people value the happenstance of where they were brought up to create bonds so strong that they may be willing to die for them?

I know community is important to me, but the pull of the core tenet of Buddhism, Jainism and probably every other religion – that we are all equal, we are all human – has become stronger and stronger to the point where the divisiveness of communities of any kind become very difficult for me to reconcile.

I have no idea what communities I belong to, because I have no idea who I am.

What I believe in changes as I learn and (perhaps as a result) I am never sure in my beliefs – certainly not enough to build or engage with a community based around any specific belief. My understanding of what is valuable and what is not is shifting, even as I write today. I’ve never really understood how other people can be so sure of themselves – this surety is something I will never be blessed with.

I like so much stuff: writing, travel, photography, cooking, football, reading, watching TV amongst other things. I like some of these things more at one time and others more at another. I want to do them all, and I want to do new stuff too. I wish I could commit to something but I can’t. There is too much out there to experience to be so focused on one thing that it becomes a source of community.

Not only are there long-term shifts reshaping my beliefs as I learn more, there are short-term fluctuations based on an imperfect me. One day I wake up conservative and others liberal. Sometimes I struggle deeply with capitalism and others I struggle to understand socialism. Depending on how much I’ve slept I will be angry about some things and not others. Given this dilly-dallying how can I know how I really feel?

Community is essential to me, but I have no idea how I’m going to commit to one. I think I just need to get over my reservations and accept that division is central to humanity. We can cooperate, but only in small groups. Perhaps I need to make my peace with the arbitrary ceremonial bullshit that makes my group distinct – the things that make my group cooler, more fun and, more importantly, right and all others wrong. Perhaps this is something I will have to live with if I want to satisfy my community craving.

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