If I say I am surrounded by community, what does that mean? It’s not like being surrounded by air, or miles of country roads, or a forest. There is no substance called “community” that I can see (or taste or touch). Or, maybe it is kind of like being surrounded by a forest: what that really means is that I am surrounded by a bunch of trees. Without the individual trees, there would be no forest.
Community is more like a garden, though: a defined expanse of plants that are mostly clustered in like groups. Eggplants stand near other eggplants, tomatoes cluster with fellow tomatoes (at least they do in most people’s gardens). Sneaky weeds infiltrate the community garden when we aren’t looking. Often the weeds pretend to be the “good” plants, blending in for their own safety. Grass chuckles a little as it pops up next to corn. Broad-leaved weeds grow quietly among the lettuce, keeping their hands to themselves until they are well established, then bullying their tender neighbors. But, even in a well-weeded garden, community is not one unified “thing” that can be identified apart from its individual constituents.
Does each eggplant think of itself as “one component of a whole garden,” or does it believe it is unique in itself, but surrounded by other plants, some similar and others not? (Assuming, for the moment, that eggplants think.) The squash vine may consider itself to be related to its fellow squash, but the steady butternut may distance itself a bit from the unruly zucchini cousins.
Community is a concept, not a unified object. If we think of community as a web of people, then community is the pattern of the web, not the substance of which the web is made. What, then, is my community? Who is in it, who is beyond the fringe? What if they don’t agree with how I draw the boundaries?
I don’t interact with a community as I go about my daily life, I interact with people, some supportive, some obstructive, some just waving as they pass me by. Community is in my head, not in some fanciful garden or web out there somewhere. Community is a matter of perspective and it gains structure and impact to the degree that we agree it is a real connection between you and me and those others out there. If the community I envision in my head agrees fairly well with the community you envision in your head, we are together. From that point of agreement, we can truly grow a garden, together.