Growing up I believed that my future would be spent in the country of my youth, surrounded by friends and family. Fate intervened in the form of a civil war and gradually our community dispersed to the point that at one point my brother,
sisters and I lived on four different continents while most of my school colleagues and friends spread themselves between South Africa, Australia and England, with none that I know of moving to the United States.
Mary, by contrast, is still in contact with many of her schoolgirl friends, one of whom, Maggie, flew in from Portland, OR, for the annual family vacation on the eastern shore. Maggie’s beloved partner
died a year ago and she described the feelings of loss that still remains. Despite having a wide circle of caring friends, good neighbors and two sons with delightful grandchildren, what Maggie misses desperately, especially in the afternoons and
evenings, is the physical presence of that special someone with whom to talk things over, to share plans and ideas, dreams and disappointments.
As best I recall it was the paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey, who
first promoted the idea that mankind developed because we learned to cooperate, rather than because we became efficient killers. It is a theme that is summarized in his final published work, The Origin of Humankind - the power of numbers, working
in unison, not only proved to be transformative but led to features such as social organization, the development of language, art and culture, and human consciousness.
It is a story of man the communicator rather than
man the murderer. Cooperation was more potent than competition, Leakey argued, even as collaboration and teamwork made mankind more competitive.
It is not a hypothesis that is universally accepted, yet we can agree
that communities, by their very nature, contain a diversity of opinion, ideas, and knowledge that an individual does not encounter alone. The synergy that evolves amid a tumult of ideas can be an inspiration as well as a challenge to reconsider what one knows
and to think creatively. It feels good to participate positively in a group and to be acknowledged as a valuable societal member, recognizing that everyone benefits from worthwhile contributions. One can share skills, gain from the experiences
of others, and in those inevitable difficult times, be surrounded by others who recognize what one is feeling.
In the essay, Apples and Honey, published in Listening to the Bees, (2018) Mark Winston,
after explaining why it is important that many different species of wild bees participate in apple pollination besides honey bees, writes, “It is similar with human societies : it’s through the cross-fertilization of ideas and talents that we express
our best communal selves. We derive strength and wisdom from our mutual visions, just as the apples are improved by the visits of diverse bees to set fruit.” This notion of ‘our best communal selves’ is something I get to experience
at our local monthly bee meetings and at the annual state conference in State College.
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, writing in Shattered Assumptions, (1992) argues that there are three beliefs essential
for a healthy core self : the world is meaningful, society is benevolent, and the self is worthy. To reach our highest cultural potential, he suggests, we need to believe that the world is a good place, that we ourselves are virtuous, and that our lives
make sense somehow. We do not simply exist in arbitrary and random chaos; rather when we come together in shared community, united by a common passion, we are incentivized by the feeling that we are doing something honorable and decent, both individually
and collectively, that makes the world a better place.
The original human groups, perhaps some 60 000 years ago, were concerned primarily with enhancing their chances of survival. The men would coordinate to
protect the tribe from carnivores and would allocate roles when hunting for meat; the women would stay in the camp, raising the next generation and providing the emotional and nutritional needs of the family, in all probability inventing agriculture
along the way. “It takes a village …”
In the space of 2500 years our progressive civilization witnessed stimulating communities ranging from the peripatetic gatherings of ancient Greek
philosophers, the French salons of the Enlightenment, and the many groups today that gather to discuss a shared passion, such as managing honey bees. My guess is that most of us have experienced the affirmation, if not joy, that comes from associating with
‘cool beekeepers’ at a local or state meeting, and whereas we might attend initially out of a sense of curiosity, many of us consciously commit to becoming an integral part of this community of shared energy and enthusiasm, with both the individual
and communal rewards, not to mention enjoyment and sense of fun that results from collaboration, clear communication, a strong work ethic and social responsibility … as in a bee hive.
Honey bees are superb collaborators,
which does not mean passivity. They delegate to individuals the duty to defend the community, and it appears that most of the bees in the hive will take their turn at doing so, but their role is one of defense rather than of aggression. Incidentally,
a recent observation is that those bees we see apparently resting in a hive are in fact a reserve militia, held in waiting in the event of a major catastrophe, such as a beekeeper removing the outer cover of a hive without fair warning to the bees!
I have often wondered why, if the guard bees are at the entrance of the hive, so many seem waiting for me in the upper box, and suspected it was more than worker bees suddenly assuming the role of protectors of the hive in response to precipitous exposure.
Important as community is, it cannot compensate for the intimacy that comes with sharing one’s life for many years with a beloved. It’s a complex interaction. Just as a honey bee cannot survive for more than 24 hours without
her community, so we need the balance between personal endearment and the support and stimulation of a wider fraternity.
I have known a number of people, friends and family alike, who were left bereaved, and my hope
for them was that they would recover gradually and gently from the unimaginable grief. I did not understand the on-going loneliness that say, my step-mother endured after the death of my father, and because I did not understand it (nor was she able to
speak of it, although in retrospect there were hints) I did little to ease it. Perhaps if we as a species had not lost our sensitivity to pheromones we would not rely as much on words, or the absence thereof, to convey our feelings and needs.
In this holiday season I wish for you the joy and benevolence of a loving community, the serenity and tenderness that comes from loving relationships, and the compassion and empathy that you can offer to those who are hurting.