Detention with the Outcasts

Real community challenges our assumptions about the value of choice and the role of ideals.

It’s 6:50 on a Saturday morning and the detainees straggle in. A ragged man-child in army boots plops his feet on the table and hawks a loogie into the air, catching it in his mouth. A brown mop of hair in a parka enters, squeaks, and runs to the farthest seat. “Excuse me,” prom queen Claire says with a raised hand, “I know I have to be in detention, but I don’t think I belong here.”

The Breakfast Club (1985) explores the issues of structure and community raised by Brian Brown’s recent column. Is community really a choice, as we might choose to enter an agrarian commune or “do community” with those friends whose opinions strikingly mirror our own? At first glance, it seems so. Most communities today are voluntary: a Facebook group, church, school, city, and even family can be ignored, customized, or changed. In fact, the frequency with which we change communities might partly explain why most people have forgotten how to live with the discord of conflicting views.

Perhaps the heat of church splits and political discussions with the untweeded non-syrah-drinkers can be traced to the plethora of choices available, which makes compromise unnecessary. However, true community is not a choice, which should affect how we respond to and improve it.

Realistic Community

The Breakfast Club is comprised of five strange victims of natural selection. They’re in trouble for everything from skipping school to planning suicide. For the brain, the jock, the prom queen, the basket case, and the criminal, this is anything but their chosen community. After spending most of a day locked up together, the geeky Brian admits he can’t take the pressure of his sinking GPA; he’s in detention because he was planning to kill himself—with a flare gun that went off in his locker. Andy, the prize athlete, cries as he recounts the humiliated sophomore whose buns he taped together. Past the ironies of the Club’s funny and tragic problems is a common humanity that each member begins to recognize.

The surface moral of the story is that it’s good to interact with people who are different from us. While this may charm or revolt us depending on the strength of our idealistic tendencies, the deeper point is that such a thing should not be optional. Nowadays, we tend to have carefully managed lives filled with pleasant associations, where we agree on all the things that matter. But community means we don’t have a choice about who else is human. They may be unwashed and uneducated, and in the end they may not surprise us with unsuspected depth, but we are still stuck together until the end of the day.

Can a default community, without choice or segregation, actually work? “Do you want the truth?” Claire responds. “The truth is, probably not. If you walked up to me at school on Monday, I’d probably pretend I didn’t know you.” What Claire knows is that she is caught in her community of choice, the popular girls: “I don’t know why I always do what they tell me to. I hate it.” The students have so far been divided by the false communities of status—popular, smart, outcast, athletic. It’s no coincidence that only when obliged to spend time together do they cease to define themselves by differences and understand commonalities.

Why should we understand others? Not only is it edifying and grounding (for them as well as us, we hope), it also leaves the door open to that small possibility that we might be wrong, about something.

The Role of Dissatisfaction in Community

If we accept community with the people around us, another equally important question arises: is there a role for dissatisfaction with that community? Are we allowed to measure it against what it ought to be?

This is a difficult question, because it requires us to walk the line between an ideal and reality. While constantly pining for Celebration, Florida is not helpful, we won’t see the effects of community by sinking into passive acceptance either. There is a middle road between apathy and perfection, and a conservative approach is helpful in finding it. Russell Kirk’s “community of souls” suggests that community extends to the dead and the not-yet-born. This reminds us that we are responsible for what we do with our inheritance; responsible to our children. We can be dissatisfied because we are not merely living in the present; we are carrying on the wisdom of the past and writing the unrealized future. For a conservative, dissatisfaction is not refusing to live in reality (or community); it is drawing from the best reality humans have achieved in the past to create a better reality for the future.

Dinesh D’Souza, president of my alma mater, The King’s College, says, “If we want to make a difference, we have to go where the action is”—like New York , D.C., or LA. He says trying to make a difference on the “surface level,” from person to person, doesn’t change the world, or at least not as much as becoming the president of a grand institution.

But it’s a desire to change the world that too often changes a healthy dissatisfaction into an unhealthy ideology. A primary focus on structure says that people are best when herded; that what someone thinks doesn’t matter as long as they have to obey you. True community insists that the action is happening everywhere. The world may indeed change through a good second-grade teacher, but changing the world is a bad motto. The world is big and green and blue, and people disappear in its vastness.

In community, on the other hand, people and their small efforts matter very much. Near half the important influences in my life are people I know personally (the other half are books). I know a man who moved to my hometown, Colorado Springs, and realized he would not get to know people unless he worked at it. He set aside a small amount of money to take people to dinner—any people; good connections or homeless men. Another friend, who has her neighbor’s house key, snuck in to clean the house when her neighbor was away on a trip (try this one at your own risk).

My suggestion: instead of changing the world, join a Breakfast Club. Or better yet, look around and see what communities you may already be in, and reconsider the ones you’re desperately avoiding.

And stop trying to change the world.

This post was originally published January 31 2012.

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