Life changed two weeks ago on an average Tuesday. I was getting ready for work and saw a tragic accident on the news. I continued my morning ritual until I later discovered that the motorist in that accident was my friend, Susan, a fellow mom in my son’s grade at school and, quite simply, a rare and remarkable woman. We bonded over shared curly hair and her one-time career in PR. Her smile is engaging and enticing and every time I run into her, I am left wanting more. Today, Susan remains in the hospital where she will likely be for quite some time, recovering from numerous operations and injuries. It will be a long journey, but one that anyone who knows the extraordinary Susan, knows she can make.
What has transpired since Susan’s accident has also been nothing short of extraordinary. I – and others – remembered the original (read pre-Internet) definition of the word “community.”
When you google “community,” the first two results, oddly enough, refer to an American television comedy series that premiered in September of 2009 on NBC. Wikipedia’s definition comes in third, defining the word twice. First, referencing “a social unit larger than a small village that shares common values,” then, a bit later a rather sterile evolution: “Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has less geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. Prior to the internet, virtual communities (like social or academic organizations) were far more limited by the constraints of available communication and transportation technologies.”
In today’s world the word “community” usually refers to a virtual group of people who never actually meet, but who are connected by some commonality – say, their excitement for the next Twilight movie. Companies pay (very) good money to build communities around their products and one wrong marketing move can easily destroy the community faster than you can say “scandal.” In recent weeks, I’ve been wondering: has technology stretched the definition so far that we forgot what it means to be part of an actual and physical community where we need an actual life occurance to jolt us back to the buried definition: “A community is a group or society helping each other.”
We see examples of it everywhere, most recently in the wake of Hurricane Sandy – families coming together to search for lost family photo, strangers opening their homes to share a generator, hot meal, or working outlet. Just ask the folks in our temporary makeshift “Edelman Brooklyn” office.
In Susan’s case, news of the accident traveled swiftly among her countless friends – both inside and outside the school. Disparate and desparate, all quickly united by one oveririding calling: we all wanted to help. Within a day of the accident, the ‘moms’ swarmed in: sharing what we knew and how we might help. A few days later, I received an email from someone I had never met, inviting me to join Mealtrain.com, a free site designed to help organize the age-old tradition of the community coming together to bring meals to a family in times of need. I found great comfort in knowing that the virtual world is actually helping those of us in the real world come together. By the time I opened the email later that day, all the meal slots were already full for the month, though I’m hopeful one will open up come next month. The meal train had left the proverbial station and I was left wondering what I could do.
That’s when I decided to write this post, spread the news about Mealtrain.com and share my rediscovery of my own community. Each evening, the woman’s husband, who happens to be a professional TV writer (this is LA, after all) writes the most touching and exquisite updates on her condition. Like everyone else who reads them before sleep, I smile, cry, learn more about Susan, examine my own life and, most importantly, am hopeful. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Susan and all she represents in our community. Some days, there isn’t an hour.
I am comforted by the fact that I now believe that should anything happen to me, the community will jump in and see that my boys are well-fed and well-loved. I can’t wait until Susan sees the community she has inspired. It is quite remarkable, just like her.
Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America and U.S. Western Region