We are meant to go together
September 19, 2023
Every community I visit these days is talking about how fragmented we are. As a country, as a society, as individual communities. Even as neighborhoods and families. From Selma, Alabama, to Reading, Pennsylvania, the message I’m hearing is the same. From leaders to citizens, people are hunkering down. They are retreating, increasingly isolated, even lonely. Meanwhile, the inequities and disparities and other assorted challenges we face only fester and deepen.
This is likely not news to you. Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” They found that, “In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic…”
The Surgeon General classifies loneliness as a public health concern. As well he should. My own childhood experience with chronic illness—which at times was intensely isolating, filled with cold hospital rooms and doctors who talked about me but never to me—proved to me that loneliness has profound and lasting impacts on a person beyond any physical ailment we might experience.
We are wired to be social beings. It’s part of our DNA. We are meant to go together into the world. We do that as partners, spouses, family members, and friends. We also do it as allies, teams, collaborators, and organizations.
Perhaps most importantly, we must do it as communities. When we do not go together as communities, we remain divided and fragmented. Loneliness becomes inevitable. Challenges mount and begin to look intractable.
Now, after decades of leading community-driven work to bridge divides and create new trajectories of hope, I have come to believe that our civic culture is the most important thing we must focus on to reverse these conditions and create thriving communities. We must rebuild our civic norms, develop leaders and organizations that are turned outward to their communities, create new networks for innovation and working together, and generate a greater sense of shared purpose.
When we do not go together as communities, we remain divided and fragmented. Loneliness becomes inevitable. Challenges mount and begin to look intractable.
From my experience, it is clear that every community in this country has the innate ability to come together and forge a more purposeful path forward for itself. If we were to do so, I have no doubt isolation, division, and loneliness would diminish. Yet too often, we withdraw from one another, denying the very things that make us human.
In my faith tradition, Judaism, there’s a teaching that you are not whole without the community. In fact, one midrash—an ancient commentary on Hebrew Scripture—warns against dismissively asking: “‘What concern are the problems of the community to me?…Why should I listen to them?” and argues that the one who says “‘I will do well without them,’ helps to destroy the world.”
Thus, to go it alone not only hurts yourself, but as the midrash declares, it “helps to destroy the world.” Fighting the whirlwind of negative forces in society requires that we face them—and fight them—together. We cannot effectively deal with education, climate change, racial injustice, or any other complex issue unless we are grounded in shared responsibility and collective effort.
Talking about sophisticated programs, grand plans, and intricate strategies may have its place. But oftentimes, when we so intensely engage in such work, we miss something so basic and intrinsically human. We must go together. You should not—and cannot—do the work to create a new trajectory of hope alone.
None of this means we all have to like one another. Nor can we sugarcoat our challenges. Kumbaya around the campfire is never the goal. But going together requires, at a fundamental level, that we see and hear one another and make ourselves seen.
I’m not saying we eliminate our differences. I’m not saying we pretend that division doesn’t exist. Yet I am suggesting that we foster an ability to live with—and lean into—ambiguity, disagreement, and conflict even as we go together. We must not let disagreement derail us from moving forward or allow it to drive us into further isolation, fragmentation, division, and loneliness.
We cannot afford to hunker down and continue retreating. The unhealthy civic conditions in our communities and our country will only worsen if we do. But there’s another path. A way out. It starts with saying we must build together amid our real differences. After all, we are meant to go together.
Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.