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Feeling increasingly isolated, Emily White embarked on a search for modern-day community – offline. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Feeling increasingly isolated, Emily White embarked on a search for modern-day community – offline. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

Can self-reliance replace the benefits of community? Why it's time to rebuild civic life Add to ...

Growing up in Toronto, Emily White and her friends ran in and out of their neighbours’ yards and houses like they “owned them.” The neighbours didn’t mind, including the Swintons, a couple in their 50s with no children at all.

Like so many other memory-loaded locales in Toronto, White’s childhood neighbourhood eventually met the wrecking ball. But the desire to belong to a “local place” didn’t ebb, especially after a separation from a partner left her feeling particularly empty in a big city. For White, happiness was always “a byproduct of connection,” and so she embarked on a search for real, modern-day community, charting the experience in her new book Count Me In: How I Stepped Off the Sidelines, Created Connection, and Built a Fuller, Richer, More Lived-in Life.

White, the author of the 2010 bestseller Lonely: A Memoir, argues that the ways in which people used to connect are vanishing. She traces the societal impact of disappearing public spaces, gentrifying neighbourhoods that price out their denizens and the dispersal of big groups, from churchgoing communities and unions to the Shriners and the PTA. “We’d lost a good deal of public life and had been left with lives that were strictly private. But we were never designed for strictly private lives,” writes White. “Private ties can’t turn us into all we need to be.”

In the vein of Robert Putnam’s pivotal book from 2000 Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, White’s book is an incisive philosophical tract on our “going-solo world,” and what we’re losing with all of our emphasis on self-reliance over the support of others. It’s a collective concern mined in developmental psychologist Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, published last year, and before that by New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, published in 2012.

“I’m not sure any generation before ours has encountered, or been forced to accept, the same level of aloneness as us,” writes White. “Sometimes the aloneness is glamorized (those plucky sailors in their one-man boats) and other times it’s deplored (the old woman found dead in her apartment), but either way, it’s not challenged. There’s not a whole lot in our culture urging us to join together in real, in-person ways. We can tweet, but we’re not encouraged to meet.”

Putnam wrote that the single biggest predictor of happiness is how many people you know both socially and intimately. So it’s troubling that researchers continually find people feeling less and less connected. The number of Americans who feel a sense of belonging has dropped by half since 1976, according to research from the University of Oregon. White also points to the work of Boston College’s Juliet Schor, who observed that “belongingness rates” began to plummet in the early 1980s, about the time we shifted spending away from communal spaces like parks, libraries and community centres. Beyond such public decisions, our busy schedules and long commutes, White argues that people don’t exactly know how to open up to strangers and belong any more.

In an effort to combat the going-solo tide, White decided to embark on a year and a half long “belongingness challenge” in order to “feel more and be more.” She joined her local community garden, attended gay Catholic services at a local church, dabbled in Aquafit with chatty geriatrics and volunteered with Greenpeace and Pig Save, an animal-welfare group. White documents the process of creating a richer, more public existence, when life-as-is “feels too small and you want to belong to something bigger than you.” The former environmental lawyer spoke with The Globe from Toronto.

Is your book the intellectual equivalent of the well-meaning friend who tells you to “pick up a hobby in the new year”?

I think they are things to hope for, as opposed to hobbies. We live in too much of a goal-oriented culture. More belonging and connection would be really reasonable to hope for as you head into a new year – something bigger than just you and your own private ties. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with loving your best friend, family or spouse. It’s that we need a public, community dimension to our lives as well. If you start to lead just an entirely private life, things can start to feel too small and too intense, too much of the time. We forget how much newness new people can introduce to our lives. Your world does start to feel bigger because it’s not just about you and the people you went to school with, the people you’re related to and the people you’re living with. It’s about people you don’t know that well. I call them public ties. We used to call them civic ties. They’re really important. My hope was to recreate that in my life.

What’s happened to the locations that once hosted civic ties?

Public space in general is disappearing. We’ve got churches that used to be community spaces giving way to 30-storey condo towers. That’s public space being turned into private space. In Toronto for instance, there are so many changes that affect the ability of people to stay in place: skyrocketing house prices, gentrification, changing neighbourhoods. Home is the epicentre of belonging and if you can’t count on “place” to be there, it’s very hard to create belonging in other areas of your life.

You argue that we glamorize self-reliance and resilience, the kids who sail solo around the world. What does that say about how we value community right now?

We value community enormously – in the abstract. There’s an awful lot of talk about community building but it’s always super hazy. It’s not happening so much on the ground. What is happening on the ground is this emphasis on endurance. I hit bottom with endurance when I read about the Tough Mudder [endurance obstacle course], forcing yourself into ice baths, getting incredibly filthy and throwing out your shoes. Another example is the silent retreat that a lot of people are now practising, going days without speaking. We talk about community but the things that we’re encouraged to do and the things that get written up are things like the Tough Mudder. You’re running through the dirt on your own. Why aren’t we putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to community building? I wanted to get past that and do it from scratch for free in a big city that’s not conducive to community in some ways.

There do still exist free and somewhat instant communities: protests and marathons, two things you write about.

I think marathons are now falling into the “push your endurance” camp, although they do offer a feeling of being in a group. Protests, bonding with other people around an idea, is very different than a marathon. I found a very deep sense of connection through protest.

You believe that community can be hugely stress-relieving, sometimes more than our closest ties. How?

If you walked away from your closer, private ties for two months and then came back, they’d need an explanation. With more public groups, so long as you show up, you’re a part of it. At the community garden there was a guy who didn’t really say anything all night. He was just building something but he was happy and he was with people. There’s less pressure on other people and less pressure on you. Nobody’s going to be asking you for massive support or advice. You can just go and hang out.

We’ve lost sight of how freeing that can be. The American researcher Ray Oldenburg who wrote the book The Great Good Place said that as we’re losing these places where we can just hang out, we’re relying more on tranquillizers. I think he’s right. We’re getting more anxious in part because community and belonging relax you. Finding community does take work but ultimately it doesn’t demand as much of you as your private ties do.

You write that, while you don’t expect hipsters to don Shriner hats or women to devote hours to PTA meetings, reaching out beyond the echo chamber of our private circles is crucial. Why?

People sort themselves into a bubble: “Did he go to McGill? Does he know so-and-so?” We’re not encouraged to meet people who are different from us all that often. The people I met during Pig Save or at church, these were people who were not part of my regular circle. They offered new perspectives and experiences. We weren’t sorting into how old we were, where we went to school or what we did for a living.

We think of small towns as warm and cities as alienating for this type of socializing. Is that a myth?

Small-town fantasies are a staple of urban life and they’re never going to go away. The thicket of choices in a big city can be paralyzing – you don’t know where to start. A small town takes away a lot of your options; it makes things simple and getting involved easier. People are very friendly because there are so few people coming and going. That said, bigger cities offer so many more ways of belonging, from people singing in choirs in bars to people organizing book readings. I was amazed at how much warmer Toronto felt by the end of my project. You don’t need a small town for that.

A friend recently called couples “relationship rabbits” because of their tendency to get insular. How much community-seeking would you have done if you were in a relationship?

It’s an interesting hypothetical. Even people in relationships need community: The more public support you have, the less weight there is on your relationship. You’ve got more people to turn to so that your partner isn’t always the one bearing the brunt.

Can you experience belonging when you’re alone?

You can. When I was living in the Arctic I was very connected to place. It’s important to feel good at home but then go out and build on that. We do need to leave the house. This was the takeaway from Eric Klinenberg’s book Going Solo. If you don’t have people to just hang out with in the home – and that’s true for so many people today – you need to go out and recreate community ties.

“You don’t become someone else” in the process of community building, you write. You become “a better and different version of yourself – someone who says ‘hi’ easily, who knows people of all ages, and who is both trusting and trustworthy.”

In finding a bigger public and social space to inhabit, you’re learning more about yourself. The connections you find in community are very different than friendship, which tends to remain private. What I really didn’t anticipate were the political changes that flowed from some of the groups that I was a part of. We’ve forgotten that if we stop joining things, we’re losing some of our best vehicles for social change.

I’m not expecting people to do the things that I’m doing, to join protests against pig transport or factory farms. But if you take these principles and apply them to your own life, you can wind up with forms of community that are right to you. And they’re still out there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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