Finding community at … McDonalds?

My goal for my Judaism month was to discover why Judaism fosters such a strong sense of community, despite being the religion of a very small minority of the global population. It was a fascinating month, and it made me wonder how secular, non-Jewish people could purposely find a community to join or cultivate one.

So, of course, I had to read this article I stumbled on titled, McDonald’s: you can sneer, but it’s the glue that holds communities together.

The article makes the claim that McDonald’s have effectively become community centers for poor or lower-income Americans. It’s not just a single type of person that shows up. All different types of people show up (though generally reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood).

These include retired old men such as those in the Romeo club, “Retired old men eating out.” It includes the religious who have formed prayer and religious groups. It even attracts the homeless and those who have had rough lives.

Why do they come to McDonald’s, the fast-food chain reviled by yuppies like myself?

The superficial reason is that it’s accessible to everyone.

They have cheap and filling food, they have free Wi-Fi, outlets to charge phones, and clean bathrooms. McDonald’s is also generally gracious about letting people sit quietly for long periods – longer than other fast-food places

Though a hospitable environment is absolutely necessary, the real reason people stay is the human connection.

Most importantly though, McDonald’s provide many with the chance to make real and valuable connections. When faced with the greatest challenges, with a personal loss, wealthier Americans turn to expensive therapists, others without the resources or the availability, turn to each other.

Sebastien Junger in his latest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, suspects perhaps it is precisely because of the success of free markets and liberalism in increasing wealth that many of us feel more isolated.

The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Inter-reliant poverty comes with its own stresses— and certainly isn’t the American ideal— but it’s much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence. A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society— but a trade it is.

Modernity often neglects the universal need for connection. Because many people, especially the secular, liberal, and educated crowd, are dismissive of historical institutions that traditionally fostered these communities, namely religion, we often feel a growing sense of alienation.

While modern liberalism espouses loving all of humanity and treating and respecting all human beings as equal, I suspect that these ideals are too abstract to meet our very real need for connection. It does its best to reject “tribal thinking,”  but what it misses is that the universal values it advocates may be best enacted in a tribe. Recognizing the dignity of all of humanity is difficult. It is much easier to see the humanity in someone you interact with consistently for years and years and to show him compassion when he suffers, and in turn, accept compassion when you suffer.

Human connection is local, not universal.

So what are the options available to us moderns who already made that trade (or rather, had it made for us)? It doesn’t make sense to deliberately move to a poor community to replicate pre-modern human conditions. There are no hunter-gatherer tribes for us to join, at least, not outside the local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Some modern workplaces, particularly small businesses with a somewhat flat hierarchy might fit the bill, but those are too rare to make it a serious option.

I believe religious institutions are a good option, if you’re so inclined. While Judaism may be tough to pull off if you’re not Jewish, Christian churches are almost always welcoming to newcomers and offer many opportunities to participate and get involved. Opportunities are not limited to a Sunday sermon or Mass.

But whatever you choose there are a few crucial elements that are necessary to generate that sense of connection: consistent participation, a stable core group of members, and a relatively high gathering frequency.

In my Judaism experiment, there were always Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday morning, daily Minyan prayer groups, and the same cast of characters that attended. You could tell the members knew each other very well, for better or worse.

For a non-religious, non-ancient example, my running club meets twice a week. Long runs are on Saturday mornings and track workouts are on Wednesday evenings. While year-to-year people join and leave the club, there is a stable group of about 20 people that I look forward to seeing every week and talking to during some of those monotonous 15 milers. There is nothing like shared suffering to turn a collection of individuals into a group.

I don’t have all the answers to the modern alienation problem, but I do know the ancients had some good ideas about how to avoid it, and to the extent that it is practical to do so, we should replicate it. It is quite telling that many surviving ancient traditions advocate letting go of your ego. Victor Frankl, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, writes in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning that one becomes ego-less by serving others.

The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

Perhaps we should spend less time thinking about how to keep “moving up” in the world and spend more time looking for a tribe to belong and contribute to. It is the more ancient and more effective approach to cultivating the human connection of which we are all in desperate need.

Image via JakeOliverOnline

If you just want the highlights of Sebastien Junger’s book, Tribe, I recommend watching his TED talk.