I’m a sucker for those videos of “flash mobs” that pop up on YouTube or Facebook. A flash mob takes place in some kind of public space—a city square, a shopping mall, a train station. Suddenly, someone starts to sing, or dance, or play an instrument, and then others join them and within minutes the area is transformed into a sea of smiling faces and clapping hands. Suddenly, there is community! When it’s over, everyone goes back to whatever they were doing, but with a smile on their face, a song in their heart, and a lighter step. I get a lump in my throat every time I watch one of these videos.
There was even a sort of flash mob in Auburn on Thanksgiving weekend. On Saturday night, after the parade, people gathered in the city parking lot to sing Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah.”
I think there’s something important going on here. These events happen because of a real need to be together. People crave community in a world that is increasingly private. We watch movies from home rather than go to theaters, we download books rather than go to the library, and we exercise on home treadmills rather than go to the gym. We order things from Amazon, get money from machines, and pump our own gas. We can easily go through our days without talking to other people.
While we can’t deny the convenience of modern technology, we are missing something important too. We are losing the ability to engage with people on a personal level. We have fewer opportunities to talk and listen to people face to face. Even though social media connects us to others, it also lets us choose whom we listen to, and it is far too easy to surround ourselves with voices like our own.
And with this silo effect comes a loss of civil discourse. The recent election shows how far we’ve fallen in our ability to talk respectfully with each other. It is too easy, with the anonymity of screen names, to talk in ways we wouldn’t face to face.
This fall, the Wednesday Noon Discussion Group at my church read Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy and discussed how Americans can reclaim the political process to improve our ability to live and work together. Palmer says, “Democracy demands that we become engaged with ‘the other’ as well as with ‘our own kind,’ with the stranger whose viewpoint, needs, and interests are likely to be different from our own.” He acknowledges, however, that engaging with people who are different creates tension because it forces us to live with the contradictions that run counter to our own convictions. But it is living in that tension that “opens us up to new understandings of ourselves and the world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others.”
Palmer is a believer in “the power of the potluck,” as well as in many other ways we can bring people together to listen, to talk, and to get to know each other. The more we do to break down the silos we have created, the more we will grow in our ability to live and work with people who are different than ourselves.
We are fortunate in Auburn to have places where we do gather. We have Auburn Public Theater, the YMCA, First Fridays, the permaculture park, festivals, and Wegmans. We will soon have a new play-space downtown. And we have churches.