In the movie Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks’ character Chuck is on a plane that crashes and finds himself relatively unharmed, alone, in a life raft. The raft washes onto the shore of an uninhabited island. He quickly learns to provide for his basic survival needs–food, water, shelter, fire. But he soon realizes that surviving means something more than having just the most basic of physical needs met. Several FedEx boxes wash up on the same shore; Chuck opens one that has a “Wilson” volleyball in it. He paints a face on the ball and begins to talk with Wilson as a real person. As the movie moves forward, Wilson becomes more and more of a real character. One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Chuck has built a raft and he and Wilson are out at sea. Wilson blows off the raft and is moving away from Chuck and the raft. Chuck risks his life trying to save Wilson, crying out desperately for him. And when he cannot get to him he sobs, “Wilson, I’m sorry! Wilson!!”
Cast Away provides a powerful metaphor of our very human need for community. We are not, and cannot be, discrete individuals detached from those around us. And yet, community does not happen simply because we are surrounded by people. Urban loneliness is a serious and growing problem. Community needs to be crafted and nurtured; despite our need for it, it does not appear to be our default setting.
Colleges and universities, especially those rooted in the liberal arts, often use the language of “community” in their mission and vision statements. The mission statement of Lenoir-Rhyne University, where I teach, begins the last sentence with: “As a community of learning,…” We also have a statement of core values that includes care. That we are “a community that cares about one another” or “we are like a family” is likely our greatest selling point for both parents and students.
And though I think there is plenty of room to call into question the genuine commitment to community of any institution of higher education (we are, after all, still businesses in a society that privileges profits over people), that isn’t my goal here. Instead, I want to begin with the assumption that we do, indeed, strive to build and to be genuine places of community. Then I want to consider how that is made more difficult by a combination of pandemic and our own social values–the very values we, as institutions of higher education, often successfully inculcate in our students.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has suggested that communities are best formed in what he calls “third places.” First places are private places like our homes; second places are public but formal places like work. Third places–coffee houses, public parks, community groups of voluntary association–are neutral ground which can minimize the hierarchies in place in first and second places and invite us to “do life” together. For Oldenburg this is the key to civic engagement and political life.
One of the critical components of third places is the bonding that can occur over time between people who are regularly spending time with one another. College and university campuses are full of third places–coffee shops, dining halls, dorm lobbies, study areas, auditoriums, quad spaces. Though Student Life professionals give a considerable amount of time and attention to providing formal opportunities for students to engage in campus life, I suspect the most transformative relationships grow in the fertile field of these third places. Community grows in these frequent, informal gatherings. In fact, our best mentoring takes place in this informal gatherings. In my office building (an old house which houses Religious Studies and Philosophy faculty) we have a lounge immediately inside the front door where students come to study and where students and faculty sit, drink coffee, and chat. It is in these informal, impromptu gatherings where our strongest relationships are formed, not in our formal advising meetings.
For more on how mentoring happens outside the office, see Tim Lacy’s “Care for the Whole Person.”
Now we are tasked with the crucial work of creating community without the physical with-ness upon which most of our communities depend. If community requires us being together in the same place over extended periods of time, it seems one of our most crucial vocational tasks now is to find new, creative ways to be together. Zoom and other such group meeting programs/apps are a start, but I doubt they adequately create the sort of third place required for community to flourish, especially when they are primarily used as a substitute for second place activities such as classroom instruction and committee meetings.
In addition to spending time together a critical factor in the creation of community is common values and goals. On the surface it might seem that we would be able to come together and create community around the common goal of minimizing the damage done to our communities by Covid-19. However, in the US we have a pretty spotty record regarding belief in a communal good. We are, after all, a country founded on the freedom to pursue happiness. And this happiness we are free to pursue remains unnuanced. According to a recent NY Times article, our nation’s hyper-individualism has exacerbated the damage done by Covid-19. Countries (communities) that privilege the common good and the care for the other over the exercise of individual rights have had lower instances of mortality and less long-term need for varying degrees of shutdown.
In order to create a space where community can flourish on our campuses, it seems we first need to lay the groundwork for the counter-cultural practice of privileging the common good. One way to do this is to help students (and ourselves) recognize that our own happiness is, in fact, inextricably connected to the well-being of our communities. Like Tom Hank’s character, Chuck, we are all in desperate need of community.
Mindy Makant is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Living Well Center for Vocation and Purpose at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina. She is the author of two books, The Practice of Story: Suffering and the Possibilities of Redemption (Baylor, 2015) and Holy Mischief: in Honor and Celebration of Women in Ministry (Cascade, 2019).