Community connection - for desire or for necessity?

I was listening to a podcast recently in which Prof Robin Dunbar, amongst others, was discussing the impact of the pandemic on our social networks, and thus our wellbeing, and how a such a strong sense of community was fostered at times. Since listening, I have found myself pondering, valuing, but feeling frustrated at what brings humans together.

During those isolating weeks and months of lockdowns, connection, community and the meeting of needs was widely experienced, with many of us welcoming neighbourhood chats, clanging of Thursday night pots, and the opportunity to help a fellow human in need, whether with food packages, shopping or doorstep conversations. Many of us felt authentic community 'spirit' despite such isolation. Humans, or at least many of us most of the time (or is it all of us some of the time?), are also brilliant at supporting other humans in times of crisis, such as war or natural disasters. The innate human connection kicks in, compassion is evident, and we see humans meet the immediate needs of other humans, often regardless of their own individual circumstances. We see people invite international strangers to live in their homes...we see people hand over personal belongings...we see people rush to offer support at inconvenience to their own lives. And yet, despite seeing such incredible acts of human kindness and the meeting of considerable needs in times of crisis, we often don't see the same meeting of needs on our doorsteps or local communities in an average week or month. We see people walking passed their local homeless community never offering so much as a meal...we see people ignoring the person in the supermarket car park whose shopping bags have just split...we see people busying about their day focusing primarily on their own immediate needs.

Is it that our in-built 'needometer' must reach a certain level before we innately reach out to connect with others, or is it situation dependent? Is it that we need to know details of a person’s situation before our ‘needometer’ kicks in…or is it simply that we meet needs when we can and we don't when we can't...or is it a combination of all of the above? And how much does culture influence this 'needometer'? Is it the environment in which we find ourselves, and thus the attitude, time available and appreciation of people being in our lives, that plays a significant part? Is it underpinned by a sense of belonging to something small, or something much bigger than ourselves or our community, that nudges us to play a part in our community both as the ‘meeter of needs’ and as the ‘acceptor’ of need-meeting offered to us by others?

We know that stress, unmet attachment needs and trauma significantly impact our capacity to engage with others, and to 'see' and 'feel' our environment accurately and positively, and meet the attachment needs of others, but we also know the incredible impact showing compassion to others has on our capacity to self-regulate and engage, and on our resilience. So how can we embed that 'lockdown / crises community feeling' into life when it's more 'normal'...the everyday 'stuff'? How can we lower the threshold of our 'needometers' so that we notice and value the importance of meeting the needs of those around us, and of accepting the offer of others in the meeting of our needs (since we are all vulnerable and all resilient)?

When thinking about this, I find myself bouncing between the concepts of attachment and trauma awareness, and the importance of self-care. If we fundamentally knew how human brains develop, function, meet needs and require needs met then wouldn't we hopefully engage in more interactions that met needs of both others and ourselves? And if we understood the science of self-care and what we can be mindful of to support our own resilience, and that of others, then wouldn't we all have greater capacity to meet the needs of others in our communities? It's a very fine balance, I know, that is tilted by life's experiences, but knowing what helps us and impacts upon us surely places us and our communities in a better place. Wouldn't it be lovely if we all felt a genuine desire to be part of our community everyday without the prompt of crises, disasters or pandemics 'helping' us to engage and feel the power of community?

Author: Susan Blomley