One of the recurring themes at The American Conservative is an emphasis on localism and community as an alternative to impersonal big business. Communities, no doubt, have a plethora of benefits: they are a way for us to increase our personal happiness, reduce our suffering, and share our lives with each other. But not all of us have the good fortune of being born into communities that nurture and support us. External factors such as poverty, abuse, and illness can isolate individuals and prevent them from receiving the validation and solidarity they need. Fortunately, there is a solution to this common problem. Communities can be built through creativity and kindness, where families or other preset communities fall short. Imagination and kindness, used together, can create a richer experience than if one or the other were used on its own.
A pertinent example of this is the protagonist Sara Crewe in the childhood classic A Little Princess. At the start of the novel, Sara’s community is guaranteed to her through money: her father’s wealth gives her a place at a boarding school where, despite her idiosyncrasies and friction with the headmistress, her place within that community is secure. When conflict arises, Sara relies on her imagination to assuage her grief for her absent mother and separation from her father. She spins elaborate stories for her classmates to distract herself from reality. But then Sara’s father dies, and his fortune evaporates. Sara is now dependent on the headmistress for a roof over her head. Her community stripped from her, Sara’s poverty sentences her to a life of destitution and isolation. Her once vibrant imagination falters. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene, Sarah flings her prized possession, a porcelain doll across the room in a fit of rage once she realizes that the doll cannot comfort her.
The desperation of Sara’s situation drives her to rely on her kindness to build her community anew. When a kind baker gives Sarah extra buns, she gives them all away to a child on the street, leaving one for herself. The small gesture provides Sara with a measure of relief. She understands that there are those worse off than she is, and that the kindness she extended helps her cope with the limits of her own circumstances. Shortly after this revelation, a mysterious donor appears in Sara’s life, leaving food and extra blankets, which she shares. Her kindness is more than repaid, eventually restoring her back into a second, more permanent, community.
As a perennially lonely child, Sara’s story always spoke to me. I took refuge in books and my imagination, much the way Sara did, and often overlooked that it was possible to build the community through small acts of kindness, even if they weren’t always reciprocated. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that planting seeds of kindness had blossomed into strong friendships that sustained me as I wandered around the country and the world.
Marilynne Robinson brilliantly expounds on the reciprocal relationship between the individual and community in her essay, “Imagination and Community,” from the collection When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she encounters young writers unsure that their work will sell, or will be understood. This is a tragedy waiting to happen. “But the worst of it is that is that so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources.” In order to keep the community of writers and readers going, it must be fueled with imagination, but motivated by love. If a writer loves her community, she will produce work that is worthy of them, that will change their lives for the better. In turn, the writer will have the benefits of knowing she has reached her potential. Robinson closes her essay with a powerful thought: “It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community.”
Communities certainly can be local, but if built correctly with the proper amount of creativity and love, they can extend beyond our immediate scope, bringing in those who desperately need affection but have no source of it. Communities are largely internally reinforced, but one of their other natural functions is to reach outwards to bring more members in.