Monday, May 02, 2005

Rebuilding Community

As promised, this blog will also feature commentary on culture and psychiatry...

Have you noticed how many new churches contain the word 'community' in their names? It speaks to churches' recognition of the disconnectedness many modern Americans feel and their attempt to fill that need.

It's no secret that the great commercial and media booms of the latter 20th century have made us more likely to become strangers in a crowd--living among neighbors we hardly know, feeling more connected to celebrities than real people. Mary Pipher blames much of this movement on psychotherapy. According to her, psychoanalysis was designed to help neurotic Victorians work through their overactive consciences, but today's patients come for help finding meaning and become egocentric when the last traces of guilt are shrugged off in the service of feeling good.

I would argue that psychotherapy at its best is coaching in participating in community. George Vaillant, the eminent American psychiatrist, spent years gathering and analyzing objective data from hundreds of intimate personal interviews with normal people over their whole lifetimes. To his eye, normal adult development consists of ever expanding circles of concern, in growing levels of complexity and meaning. A therapist, or a life mentor of any sort, can be a catalyst for this beneficial widening of interpersonal involvement.

Vaillant describes an adult developmental stage of "keeper of the meaning" when an individual has attained mastery beyond competency in career and personal life, and is able to serve as a role model and transmitter of the tradition and knowledge he/she has acquired. I might argue that it is the ability of a population to foster enough individuals to attain this stage which allows a culture to effectively transmit its ways through the generations. Vaillant also observes that mentoring is an important activity through which individuals who successfully construct and experience meaning in their lives do so.

Mentoring is at the root of community; it is among the key activities that communities form a framework to support. Mentoring happens at work, in formal instruction, and among neighbors informally. If we each find or become a mentor, as we see the need and the ability, we can foster a sense of community despite the obstacles we encounter.


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