Even as the Christmas season is upon us, we recently enjoyed an unusually fine December day, and I could tell the old blue Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter wanted out of the garage and on the road. (You can tell these things, trust me.) So I headed out on a familiar route that includes a bit of highway and a bit of backroad. It winds through picturesque horse country near our house.
Other motorcyclists were taking advantage of this great weather, too. It’s customary to wave at approaching riders, but I passed a few who didn’t wave and it got me to wondering. Was it that riders of other marques didn’t want to recognize a different machine? Was it that they’re tired of this small act of hospitality? I wonder if they would stop and offer assistance if I were broken down on the road?
It was disconcerting. This inauspicious act has been one of the many pleasures of a ride. I hasten to say that some riders waved enthusiastically, so it isn’t as if the gesture is dead altogether.
That evening, browsing Motorcycle Cruiser magazine, I happened upon a column that mirrored my experience almost to a tee. Not only that, columnist John A. Kovach had experienced a breakdown and watched other riders pass without offering assistance. Even in motorcycling, community is breaking down.
He muses that we’re caught up in a culture of individualism. His brother-in-law heads a volunteer fire company and reports he can’t replace his 60-year-old volunteers with younger people. Kovach recalls the days when civic clubs provided community connection and a way to serve the common good, but these are now in decline as well.
Individualism has been a trend for many years. It was noted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. A recent Pew research study on global attitudes found that U.S. citizens are more likely to believe their fate is within their own control and express greater belief in individual initiative than Europeans.
The process of atomization in U.S. society is ingrained. The forces that drive individualism are many–race and class, the unending barrage of advertising that cultivates our feelings of inadequacy and promotes individual desire, urban planning and development that defined the American Dream as suburban utopias. Many of us live in so-called bedroom communities that don’t offer much neighborly interaction. Work is separated from other parts of our lives. Advertising manipulates our words so that our language is less precise, and it tries to hook into our interiors, our thoughts and feelings. We’ve become skeptical and protective.
As we’ve urbanized, we’ve moved away from small towns, mainstreet businesses and town squares, and the web of relationships they embodied and sustained. Through marketing and advertising, our humanity has been redefined and we are cast as mere consumers. However, as the big box stores give us the lowest price and automated checking, they reduce our interaction to anonymous transactions. Shoshana Zuboff says consumption requires no skill, just an appetite. Volunteer organizations that once offered community, order and stability are no longer able to do so, and we seem to be losing our sense of the common good.
At the same time, we yearn for connection; we long for something more meaningful than the latest gadget or short-term fad. We want more than an artifice of community, we want meaningful, fulfilling connection. A recent study by the Barna Group reveals that young persons in the United States desire to be a part of something larger than themselves and they are not finding that in churches.
United Methodist Communications just released a study showing that what we enjoy most about the holidays is connecting with others. We enjoy sharing a meal with others (25%), traveling to visit friends and family (14%), worship (5%) and volunteering time (5%). When asked what was most meaningful among these our answers are: the shared meal (54%), worship (14%), and visiting friends and family (10%) .
In this axial age, we seem caught in a conundrum — the rider as rugged individual and the rider in community, and perhaps the analogy extends more broadly. In the paradox, I believe we yearn to belong and to be known. But it’s not an easy path.
In religious language, even if we don’t (or can’t) express it in words, we yearn to know that we belong to God and to each other. But many are also skeptical of religion, so we search. And wonder.
Sometimes a wave is more than a wave. And a meal is more than food.