We may be living in a time when we are forced to rediscover the meaning of social capital, which is indeed a form of wealth equivalent to material wealth. When we are driven by money and markets or some kind of career that requires nearly all of our time, our participation in social and community interactions weakens. But when we are busy making money or believing that what we are doing will change the world, we may not make it a priority to invest in real social connections outside the family. We may not even make enough time within the family.
Let’s say, one day you or someone like you caught in that kind of web has an epiphany. It could have been precipitated by something you didn’t expect. It’s late, your family has gone to bed long ago, but you’ve brought home some work. You are tired, but you keep reading. Then something happens; it could have been the water you were drinking just went down the wrong way, mild chest pains, or you might have just looked out the window briefly and not quite recognized the face reflecting back at you. You look at your papers again, but your concentration is broken. It’s very late and suddenly you think about what you are doing–and you don’t do that very often. You don’t have the time.
You didn’t see the kids before they went to bed–and you haven’t had a real conversation with your significant other in several days. The only friends you really have are at the office, and, thinking about that, you realize they are not really close friends, they are just people you work with. What kind of life is this, you think. You look across the room and then down at the papers still in your hands and start reading. An hour or so passes. You’ve done all you can tonight. You head to bed and seven hours later you’re dressed and ready to head off to work. This is your life and it is similar to the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans.
Many Americans have worked so hard that they have lost their sense of community within which they may have once had neighbors or friends in non-work organizations they trusted and socialized with. Now they belong to no groups where there may be bonds of affection or at least appreciation of the fine qualities of others in the group from the youngest to the oldest. They cannot even repeat their stories. They don’t know them.
This is the kind of life imbalance which is causing many to seek another way: A much larger group than we might have thought owing to the massive economic difficulties visiting us in 2008, and about which I wrote expensively in February. Increasingly, people who have lost jobs are not able to find another comparable job. They may find jobs, but not necessarily a full time job. They are faced with the prospect of limping along until they can retire. But those prospects don’t look exceptionally good either. There is less money in the 401K that tanked in 2008, and though the 401K has been rebuilt, it’s enough to retire on, but could be if standards of living change.
With a part time job or two, skills and a little free time, perhaps there’s a way to supplement income, but it may mean going to work for yourself doing something, finding customers and doing your own marketing. In addition, one has to find ways to cut corners, maybe even grow some of your own food in the back yard or in sun window. Working and spending less seem to be necessities, also developing new skills and conserving everywhere. One may even exchange labor or services with others, creating a face to face economy exchanging labor, ideas, tending community gardens, trading childcare services. These can be greatly helpful in rebuilding lost social connections. We’re not building communes, but we certainly have some real opportunities to socially reconnect. What is happening in America and elsewhere in the world is that we are beginning to rebuild our sense of community and partly determine through that who we are and what our stories will be.