What comes to mind when you think of community?

Do you imagine parks where children play, boisterous public gatherings and quiet neighborhood get-togethers? Do you imagine people working toward common goals, such as a food drive, coaching little league, planting a tree or a street cleanup?

Or do you imagine something completely different?

Let’s examine this further. A community is a fellowship in organized society, or a grouping of people that have something in common. This “something in common” can be simply physically where you live, whether it is your preference or where you can afford. It can also be based on what you believe or intend to pursue such as belonging to a religious organization, a social group or an academic panel. Or it can be driven by circumstance, such as a need or risk, including homelessness or illness.

In 1887, German Sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, wrote that community was an extension of family and kinship which forms a “unity of will.” That is to say, a community, made up of people, was greater than the sum of its parts, and was its own entity. Historically a community was known to be a subset of a larger whole, such as a metropolis or country. Although typically tied to a geographic location, or people in close proximity to each other, the advent of the Internet has made the community “entity” virtual. This only emphasizes that membership, and not physical connection, is its defining factor, and that this “unity of will” based on “things in common” can scale infinitely.

A community is not a building block of social infrastructure, such as city or providence. It is a building block of social order. It allows us to build social networks, social contracts, an exchange of expectations based on norms and reciprocity. These concepts are summarized as “social capital,” a term defined by the political scientist, Robert Putnam.

A community is more than common interests that form an entity. It is an identity. And when a large number of people identify with something they feel strongly about, it wields great power.

Community has a power to create. It creates a sense of belonging, togetherness, and good will. It creates security, balance, comfort and peace. It instills in its members the sense of being part of something greater than themselves, creating a natural hierarchy, and a purpose.

But community also has power to destroy. When disrupted, there is a natural loss of control that creates fear. When two communities come into conflict, a “zero-sum game” is formed. We will explore the cruelty of the zero-sum game in a later entry, however, it operates under the assumption that resources between competitors are limited, and one competitor’s loss is the other’s gain. This creates a defensive “us verses them” construct, and ridged boundaries.

It is when we balance this ability to create and destroy we must remember that we all belong to the same “human community.” Although we identify with many things…where we live, what we believe, life circumstances…we are all humans, and all are helpless, and all have the ability to help others.

Let us all, every one of us, become members of the “kindness community.”