I had a wonderful meeting last week with a member of my board who parenthetically commented that he loved the name “The Village Square”. For him, it conjured up an experience from his travels to a small Italian village. At night, the people – from all walks of life, young and old – would find themselves congregating in the town square. They’d talk about their day, their life, their dreams. This struck me with particular force because in our meeting was the intern he had randomly assigned to help us who – through some lucky stroke of small world chance – happened to be a lovely young woman who was one of my daughter’s best friends as a child. It made the meeting and the image of his “Village Square” unusually hauntingly beautiful. I just couldn’t shake it as I went about the rest of my day that was distinctly lacking in another similar experience.
At the end of my day, I came home to my family in the suburbs. I was thinking about what it might be like if instead of gathering in the living room and pulling out our laptops, we ambled down to the local town square. There I would find my family and my neighbors families, completely unexpected conversations, a food vendor or two, a few kids kicking around soccer balls, pets following behind. The connections that naturally exist in the town square form a natural support for the civil society (including civic and political decisions) that must rest on it.
A town square at sunset becomes a melting pot, its humanity stirred into a swirl of colors and directions and ideas. In it is an implied compromise: I walk away just a bit from “me” to become “us.” Yet this is so vanilla compared to the bold individual colors we’ve become used to painting with in our lives. The uber-individualization of our times encourages us to boldly pick the direction of our own lives, down to an exact compass degree. Just to our left and our right in the spinning of our lives are other people existing just one degree off our path who we don’t necessarily feel compelled to make into an “us.”
With all of the wonderful individual muscles we flex in service of our own unique life goals, I think we know we have lost something profound, that we know in our very core that we need more people in our lives, even if they’re people infuriatingly unlike us.
My friend Lea just sent me a blog post that made this same point from a Christian perspective. But for my rhetorical purposes, I’ll borrow just a snip from author Donald Miller about the biology of our need for people:
What is most important to heart health, according to [extensive research performed by heart surgeon Dean] Ornish, is community. Thatâ€™s rightâ€¦other people. Patients who suffered from a heart attack were more likely to recover if they had a dog, and also if they were in a good marriage, and then also if they were part of a close-knit community. They could also take medicine, but the medicine helped about as much as the community, Ornish found.
As our human connection goes high tech and twitter, our loss may be incalculable.
I think conservatives understand this intuitively better than liberals do. And conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, have more “town squares” in their lives than a typical liberal. Maybe that’s part of what intuitively concerns conservative Americans – that the fabric is coming unraveled. And, as Jonathan Haidt astutely observes in his Ted.com lecture on the differences between liberals and conservatives, conservatives know that order is so much harder to build than it is to destroy.
It’s simply an unalterable fact that our new town square is partly online. We’ll strive to humanize it, we’ll probably even succeed now and again, like at Purple State of Mind. But unless we can find an occasional evening in our lives to venture out into the village square, we’ll be forever poorer for it – possibly in ways too profound to fully grasp.
(Photo credit: Paolo Margari)