Yesterday morning I dropped off at the Morris County Board of Elections my application to run for the Mountain Lakes Board of Education this fall. Later in the afternoon I learned that Patty and I are running unopposed. My first foray into electoral politics appears destined to a smashing success!!!
One of the great rewards of establishing deep roots in a small town is that you form a deeper sense of connection to a community than is possible in a large suburb or a city. You can become a citizen and member of a community in the full, original sense of citizenship. A citizenship defined by participation in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of a community. A citizenship where the pull of community obligations counterbalances and oftentimes outweighs one’s individual rights and desires.
The sources of meaning in your life change in unexpected ways. They cast a wider net. There is much less “I” and “me.” Somewhat less “we” and “us.” Community connections and institutions become important sources of meaning and fulfillment and a bigger part of your identity.
When I was in my 20s, 30s, and early 40s and I, and then eventually Jenny and I, moved around the country — Poland OH, Silver Spring MD, Crown Heights NY, Poland OH, Columbus OH, Tacoma Park MD, Hyde Park IL, West Orange NJ, Washington Heights NY, Rochester NY, Summit NJ, and finally Mountain Lakes NJ — in pursuit of our educational and career aspirations, meaning derived almost exclusively from our individual pursuits and close social connections. Our relationship. Our friends. Our immediate family. The degrees and academic accolades we earned. Our careers. Our home. Our travel. For me, my running, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits.
Having kids begins to move to the locus of meaning beyond oneself. Individual pursuits must be counterbalanced and reassessed in light of their needs and the desire to do what is the best for them. Work and life come into better balance. Peronal interests and athletic pursuits take a backseat for a while.
For most Americans today, even after kids, the sources of meaning remain parochial. The wellspring of meaning continues to be centered on one’s self, immediate family, and close friends. When the Pew Research Center asked Americans in 2017 to describe in their own words what makes their lives feel meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying, the answers given centered tightly on themselves, their families, and their friends. Family (mentioned by 69% of respondents). Career (34%). Money (23%). Spirituality and faith (20%). Friends (19%). Activities and hobbies (19%). Health (16%). Home and surroundings (13%). Learning and education (9%).
Participation in a broader community was rarely mentioned. Only 7% mentioned “Doing good” or “Making a difference” as a source of meaning or satisfaction in their lives. Only 5% said “Community and belonging” is important to them. Connections to community barely outpacing our non-human friends, pets (3%), as a source of meaning in their lives.
Establishing a deeper sense of connection to a community is rewarding in ways that are hard to fathom when life satisfaction and meaning are tethered only to individual and family pursuits. There is an unexpected and difficult-to-articulate power in connecting and finding meaning in your life in things that are larger, less ego-centric, and that have a longer history. It is somehow more grounding.
Life brings different types of rewards. Yesterday, it was becoming a candidate for the Board of Education to try to give all Laker kids a brighter future. Today, it is doing a little light carpentry so that a neighbor can install an air conditioner in her mom’s upstairs bedroom after she had a recent fall. It is overseeing the town 10K and 5K trail running races so that they see not only their 43rd and 44th and 45th annual runnings but many many more. It is having a group of kids from the elementary school yell “Hi Coach Bob!” when I am running at the track before I pick Will up from school or Coach Oliver say “Good morning Coach Bob” when he runs by our house on Saturday mornings.
I wonder how much less acrimony and partisanship we would have in America today if more of us had these deeper connections to our communities and neighbors. How much more joy and happiness. How much more satisfaction with our lives.