When William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), the Dublin-born poet was walking through a rural Irish community, he discovered he was lost. Lacking a GPS, Yeats simply asked the first resident of a small town for directions. As citizens of compact villages are likely to do, several people hastened to the poet’s aid and offered directions.
Before strolling on his way, Yeats asked of the helpful residents: “Do you live here as a community or do you exist to make money from one another?” There is a great difference between living and existing. Striving to make money off each other can evolve into cold, stressful “existence” while nourishing community is a more rewarding life. The helpful people giving directions then discovered they were lost themselves. They had given direct advice to Yeats, but as for the “holistic” picture of their lives, they were unable to respond with satisfaction.
We can pose the question of Yeats in any city where we find ourselves. We might find a blend everywhere. Small neighborhoods tend to have more community spirit, but the element of self-preservation and economic survival at times weakens community spirit as competition and greed enter in.
My “ancestral village” in rural southern Illinois now has doubled to 4500 people and two traffic lights. There is still a strong sense of community in a town where there has been one murder (1927) in 150 years. The gruff police officer who arrested an intoxicated man for disturbing the peace was later murdered by the man “under the influence” who eventually left jail, regained sobriety and took deadly revenge.
Hong Kong in the 1970’s had more billionaires per capita than any city in the world. In 2014 Hong Kong is tied for third place with London where forty-three billionaires live in each metropolis. Moscow, set free from a greed-restricting economic system now has the most billionaires of financial cities. A friend from Moscow bemoans “wild capitalism” and the fact common people are paying higher prices on food to help fund the $50 billion sports spectacle in Sochi. Putin wants the world to know “Russia is back” after the 1989 collapse. Corruption and competition have infiltrated the “new economy.”
How do people maintain a community spirit when the system nourishes a cut-throat, competitive style of life?
The Hebrew word for /profit/ is “besa” meaning “to cut or make an incision.” Along comes prophets who advise “Beware of greed in all its forms”
The final choice between life or existence remains with each one of us caught in cities that must survive economically. Millions of people are simply not surviving spiritually because competition has driven them to the wayside and becoming “marginal people.” Many end up relying upon chemicals, TV, or shopping to narcotize their pain.
The question of Yeats applies to each one of us. It may be answered best by Alfred Delp, a priest who was imprisoned, then killed by the Nazis. In his prison meditations he wrote, “If we have brought a little light, love and kindness into the lives of others, our own life has had meaning.”