Perhaps the past looks overly rosy when one looks back, but we have to admit that we are in the midst of profound changes in the way we live our daily lives. Some of these changes are very positive, but there is an undeniable loss that is hard to quantify.
So allow me what seems to be a right for elders like myself to meditate on how things were and how things are, what we have gained and what we have lost.
I grew up in Brooklyn. In that part of Brooklyn, called East New York, I lived in a predominately Italian American community. Our block was like a world unto itself. The next block was foreign territory inhabited by unknown people (except for an occasional classmate or family member who was unlucky enough to have to live there!). We were on a side street bounded by busy and commercial avenues (Liberty and Atlantic Avenues). Our parish church was on our block, giving us a quasi-holy land reputation.
There were tons of kids on the block, kids everywhere of every possible age. People spent a lot of their time outdoors, especially during the hot summer months. The lack of AC made the apartments blisteringly hot! I recall vividly the hot summer nights: Everyone was outside till the night made everything just a bit cooler. All the adults took out lawn chairs (What a name! No grass anywhere!). The women sat in clumps, conversing and arguing. The men sat on the stoops, when they were free of the kids that descended like locusts on any free sitting areas. Even though it was getting dark, the teenagers still used the street as their stadium, playing stick ball till you could no longer see the rubber ball. The game was interrupted, occasionally, by the rare car that chanced upon our block.
It is hard to describe to people today how comforting, exasperating, and ennobling this sense of community was, and being found in a place where you belonged, where everyone watched out for one another, got into each other’s business, and lived a simple and uncomplicated life. The young people of today are aghast when I tell them that TV (all 6 or 7 channels of it) went off at midnight, that there were no smartphones, no computers; but people everywhere whose names you knew and who knew you also by name.
Simply put: we lived in a real community. The next block had a different kind of community, different people, and (I know this sounds incredible) they were all a little foreign to our block-world; same nationality, but a different microcosm, a different community.
I believe we have lost this. There are signs in this area of Astoria that the same thing was present. But that even here it has eroded. People don’t stay in a house for generations (there are still, God be praised, exceptions!). We don’t live in the street anymore. Our homes have their own environmental systems of heat and AC. We are stuck in front of TVs for hours on end—big ones, many in a house, having hundreds of channels going 24/7. Even within the family, every member lives in their own little world represented and fed by their individual smart phone.
You see this breakdown in the subway. Almost everyone is immersed in his or her own world of communication, information, and entertainment. Seldom do we communicate directly, usually virtually.
This breakdown in the traditional community has increased depression, isolation, and suicides. It has made being a Church very difficult. We come into the church building still immured in our own worlds, making the culmination of ‘Communion’ a purely individual reality, or at best a different kind of ‘virtual world’.
Can we ultimately survive this way?
God made us social animals. We grow and prosper in and through one another. The reality of a human being standing before us cannot be duplicated. The immediate interchange inherent in the relationship of one human being to another is without equal. We need conscious presence to each other, both in relationships and community. When that reality is ceded to a ‘virtual world’, where we connect through light and pixels, we condemn ourselves to a ‘real’ isolation covered over with the disguise of connecting with hundreds of friends in Facebook and other media. Direct, complex and complete presence is necessary to each relationship. When relationships become distant and when ‘real’ community becomes almost non-existent, we enter a world not made by God, and this is very dangerous to us in the long run.
While the modern media can be helpful in communicating and keeping contact with each other, we need to put the phones down, unplug our ears and look at one another, listen to each other and enter the ‘interactive’, physical world that God created.