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The Vital Importance of Community

By Dr. Margaret Paul
October 17, 2011

Discover why people in a particular kind of community die of old age, rather than from heart disease and cancer.

I've been reading in many different sources about the research involving community and well being. In his best-selling book, "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell opens with a study done in a small Pennsylvania town called Roseto.

In 1882, Italians who lived in a town of the same name, Roseto, started to come to the U.S. These people worked in the nearby marble quarries or farmed the terraced land. Upon coming to the U.S., they found jobs in a slate quarry in Pennsylvania. Eventually, about 2000 Rosetans came to the U.S. They started to buy land on a rocky hillside and built closely clustered two-story stone houses. Eventually, they cleared the land and planted fruit trees and vegetables. They raised pigs and grew grapes for wine. Schools, shops and factories sprang up and the town thrived.

While visiting a farm in Pennsylvania, not far from Roseto, a physician named Stewart Wolf discovered that a local doctor rarely found anyone from Roseto under the age of sixty-five with heart disease. In fact, Rosetans were dying of old age, rather than of degenerative diseases.

Curious, he decided to investigate. He looked at their diet and quickly discovered that their nutrition was not particularly stellar. Nor did they exercise much. Many smoked heavily and struggled with obesity. It wasn't genetics, as he tracked down people who had moved away and their rate of disease was the same as the general population.  

"What Wolf began to realize was that the secret of Roseto wasn't diet or exercise or genes or location. It had to be Roseto itself."

As Wolf and a colleague walked around town, they finally understood. They discovered that it was the egalitarian community itself. They cared about each other and had each other's backs. Families stayed together, often three generations in one house. They felt safe and they felt loved.

I've been talking with others about the importance of community. Many people express a longing for connection and community, and an end to the loneliness they feel. I've spoken to others who have tried to create intentional communities, which were a disastrous failure. Why?

Over and over, the people who tried to create communities complain about the rules, the control conflicts, and the lack of personal responsibility. I've come to the conclusion that the reason Rosetans flourished is because of "...the egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures."

In other words, instead of trying to control each other, they helped each other. As a result of this, "There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime." This is what happens when people feel safe in their community.

I don't know about you, but I would love to live this way. I would love to live in a safe community where people cared about themselves and each other.

We can do a lot to create inner safety and security. We can feed ourselves well, get enough exercise, learn to take responsibility for our own feelings and develop our spiritual connection. In doing all this, we prepare ourselves to interact with others in caring and compassionate ways. But this is not enough.

We are social beings. We are not meant to live alone. Nor are we meant to live in hierarchical, controlling communities, rather than egalitarian, caring communities.

People who felt controlled by their communities left for freedom, but the cost was often loneliness and resulting illness. It seems to me that the key to a long and happy life is to learn to take responsibility for ourselves, and then form communities of other responsible and caring individuals who have no need to control others.

I am setting my sights on creating this kind of community.


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