Our Move from Consumption to Community

“No, not rich. I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing.”

 Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

One of the most enlightening moments during my MBA was when I put together a panel discussion for the 5th Annual IESE Doing Good and Doing Well conference. The name of the panel was “Investment in Africa: Risks and Opportunities”

One of the panel members was Nicholas Nesbitt, a Kenyan entrepreneur who was educated in the US and returned home with a dream of Kenya becoming the next India. With this in mind, he started Africa’s first call centre. Throughout the absorbing panel discussion many things were said, but the comment I remember the most came from Mr. Nesbitt. In describing the economic advancement of his employees, he mentioned that they now show up to work wearing their backwards caps, baggy jeans and iPods.

To be quite honest, I was deeply concerned by the discovery that the world does indeed aspire to our consumption-driven economic model.

Upon graduation from the MBA, I joined the Clinton Foundation in Nigeria. I observed that they too are trying to replicate our economic “success” through consumption, but I made another surprising discovery while living there that led me to ask:

Why do they want what we have?

In Nigeria you can feel the connection to spirit and community everywhere. Their level of faith in God knows no bounds. God and community are relied upon for protection in a land that is suffering.

In Calgary, Alberta, Canada you can see the individualistic and island-type behaviour all around you. Our level of faith in the almighty dollar knows no bounds. Money and government are relied upon for protection in a land that is also suffering.

In the absence of financial security and an effective government ….  faith, relationships and community are required.

In North America we have created a set of systems that allow us to avoid the blood, sweat and tears needed to build healthy relationships. Getting along with one another isn’t easy, so we focus on strengthening our bank accounts instead of our communities. Valuing financial security above relationships is to the detriment of our health and leads to an increasing need for government to fill the gaps created by our lack of community.

(And it should be noted that donating money to charities isn’t the best example of community because there is a power imbalance that reinforces the inequality between the rich and the poor. Strong, resilient communities would negate the need to geographically isolate people experiencing homelessness or poverty because we would rally behind families in our communities that are struggling, rise up and take care of our own …. but I digress.)

I heard the other day 25% of Canadians will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. I actually thought this sounded low, but the nursing student said the key word is diagnosed. How many people are walking around feeling unhappy, imbalanced and/or depressed and are not seeking help?

The majority of us may not live in financial poverty, but I believe the majority are enduring a spiritual, emotional, creative, intellectual, physical and/or mental poverty caused by the cataclysmic separation from the whole we suffered during our historic economic rise.

We sacrificed our connection to community in order to create jobs faster. This is a root cause of our overburdened healthcare system.

We source our security from money and we depend on government for the rest. We race towards Freedom 55 and if we are lucky enough to reach it we try to fill the emptiness inside by becoming philanthropists or changing careers to something we enjoy. We live the life of hares, when we were born to be tortoises and enjoy every moment … not just the finish line.

When I returned to Canada and spent a year working directly with the homeless community, I ironically had never felt so at home. Similar to my experience in Nigeria, people experiencing homelessness source their security from their faith and their community. They accept their fate with grace and courage. They don’t wear masks. They are honest about their needs and who they are. They are grateful, loving and open. When I’m with them, I’m at peace.

What a world it would be if those living above the poverty line accepted their fate with grace and courage and lived without masks and with honesty. What a world it would be if we stopped competing with our neighbours, came out of hiding and admitted we are in pain and in need of relationships and community.

In my experience there is more joy and happiness in poverty-stricken communities because there is more honesty, openness, faith, trust, and hope. There is suffering yes, but their survival is dependent on relationships and community which comfort the heart. In financially secure communities there is also suffering, but our survival is dependent on money which comforts neither the heart nor fully relaxes the mind.

Joy and happiness spring from community.

My heart therefore breaks for my neighbour … that I’ve never met … that lives with 6 foot fences around them. They opted for a big backyard deck over a porch in the front yard with rocking chairs. They go from their house, to their garage, to their work and back again. They drink or eat or medicate or otherwise addict themselves. They struggle to fall asleep every night wishing someone cared, but refuse to ask for help because they know from the outside looking in it appears they have it all.

My heart therefore breaks for me … I have financial security … I’m completely independent and not a burden to society … I have family and friends who love me … I am intellectually stimulated …. I know my neighbours, local business owners … I’m fuelled by passion … but I’m lonely. When I’m not with my friends and family or in a conversation on how to solve the world’s challenges, I rarely experience joy. I’ve come to the conclusion that my capacity for joy is limited by the imbalance in our systems. I’ve come to accept that until we strike a balance between competition and collaboration and the individual and community that I may always feel unrelaxed and unsupported. I therefore spend every waking second in service to my community in an effort to catalyze a balancing of our systems, but can’t find peace within my soul. I was raised to be independent and rely solely on my effort and hard work. This has manifested itself as walls built up around my heart so that I can control my environment and keep myself safe. I find it easy to give and hard to receive. I am uncomfortable with being vulnerable and I’m uncomfortable asking for help from everyone around me because they all appear to have it together and figured out. Everything I do is to for my future security, but ironically I don’t feel safe.

The time has come to courageously admit we need each other. We tried replacing community with an over-dependence on money and government and the result is our overburdened healthcare system. Our societal state can only be transformed through healing our relationships with ourselves and each other and by rebuilding our communities.

A simple place to start is to WISH YOUR NEIGHBOUR WELL.

You are not in competition with them. There is enough for everyone. Our identities should no longer be sourced by the size of car in our driveway, but rather through the quality of our relationships with our family, friends, neighbours, ourselves and our faith. The time has come for quality to trump quantity.

Just because we can’t quantify and measure the impact of relationships and community, doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

Our competition-driven systems have drained the trust out of our society. It can only be restored one relationship at a time. Give trust and you will get it in return. Trust is the foundation of relationships.

Trust your neighbours will be there for you in a pinch and watch our communities flourish.

It’s not US vs THEM. People aren’t out to get you. People were born with a desire (and a need) to give and receive in equal measure. We enjoy helping others, but we must also push ourselves to ask for help. I am trying to ask more people for help. It’s scary. I hate it. In many cases, it makes me cry. But I force myself to do it because we aren’t supposed to be going this alone. We are supposed to balance our independence and self-reliance with a dependence on each other and our communities.

Our return to community will help us overcome our over-dependence on money and government. Our return to community will help our society be a reflection of what we actually value …. each other.

Deep down we know we are all in this together. Deep down we want healthy relationships. Deep down we are starving for community. Deep down we have faith in each other and our world.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath and repeat after me ….

“WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.”

“I WISH MY NEIGHBOURS WELL.”

“I NEED STRONG, HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS BEYOND MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY.”

“I VALUE COMMUNITY.”

“I TRUST I WILL ALWAYS BE TAKEN CARE OF.”

… and then open your eyes and watch our move from consumption to community advance.

Author’s Note: Our Return to Community = Prevention in Healthcare

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