Where Am I? The Individual & the Community

The viewpoints of people on the inside and the outside of communities depicted in these writings — whether in a small Maine town, a prison, Dublin, Newfoundland, Nigeria, or plague-stricken England — can contribute to our understanding of what is fundamental to our nature as human beings.

 

To kill a mockingbird
Choice I :
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo
  • The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
  • The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
  • Climbing the God Tree: A Novel in Stories by Jaimee Wriston Colbert

Choice II :

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing edited by Bell Gale Chevigny
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

All of us have had the experience of asking ourselves in a moment of truth: How did I get here? How did the person I am end up in this situation? The tension between the inner pressure of defining and expressing our individuality and the need to be accepted by the social world is a force that shapes the choices we make.

The germ of this program came from a scholar who had led several series in a variety of settings, including prisons and jails. He observed that one of the toughest issues for those in the justice system was their relationship to the community in which they lived and to which they ponder their return. Choices not acceptable to the community have landed them “inside”. This perspective of Inside and Outside is a major theme driving the choices of literature for these series and our discussion of the books. The awareness of these two different groups will contribute to the depth and thoughtfulness with which each group considers the theme.

Where am I? was created with the understanding that the viewpoints of those both on the inside and the outside of a jail cell, of a small town in Maine, of a village in Africa or in plague ridden England can contribute to our understanding of what is fundamental to our nature as human beings. How do we respond to that tension between individuality and community? Does a realized self depend on community, even if it is a rejection of that community? The community is the bridge between the family and the larger society. Seldom do we have a chance to choose our families. To what extent does an individual choose to belong to a community and how are these choices made? Is a community more than the sum of its individual parts? Can we break with family and still belong to the community?

In today’s world of spin doctors, “community” is one of those generators of instant positive response. Just call a school a “learning community” or an assisted living facility a “retirement community”, and immediately you’ve sold an idea. Urban designers insist that they are recreating a feeling of community. What is it that makes us respond so positively to this notion of Community? Are there negative aspects to community? Is it even reasonable to view communities in a moral light? Other questions explored in the readings for Where Am I? :

  • Are there any universal human needs that create communities?
  • Are leadership and status necessary in communities and how do these roles affect the individuals that hold them?
  • What is required to sustain a community?
  • What causes a community to split apart? to heal?
  • What choices do individuals who cannot leave their communities have?

The issues that arise in this series have long been the domain of psychologists and sociologists. What does literature have to show us that social science cannot? In the words of the scholar who conceived this theme, “we hope engagement with the readings and discussion will provide both a mirror and a lamp.”

Where Am I? is divided into two series:

Series I

The first series in Where Am I? looks at fiction dealing with individual choices made within a community and the results of those choices. It includes Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Maine author Richard Russo’s prizewinning Empire Falls, E. Annie Proulx’s Shipping News (also a prize winner), a glimpse into alienated youth in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, and a novel in stories by Jaimee Wriston Colbert (another Maine author) called Climbing the God Tree.

Series II

The second series considers a variety of community structures and the effects they have on the individuals. What does it mean to belong to a community? How and why are insiders rejected in a community? How do outsiders become integrated? This series gives us views into the prison community with Doing Time: 25 years of Prison Writing, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny. William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies is a highly symbolic work about the community created when a group of boys is stranded on an island. On the other hand, A Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, a very recent work by Geraldine Brooks, is a fictional account of the true story of a village in England that isolated itself from the rest of the world as it endured the ravages of the plague in the seventeenth century. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart an African village does begin to fall apart in response to the needs of the individuals within it and to the lures of another culture. A classic removed in time but not in space, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, rounds out the series with its tale of the outsider bound to the Puritan community that has rejected her.

 

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