When I made the jump and left the city for the rural life I was uncertain about how some aspects of my life might change. I was, however, quite sure that moving to a smaller community would be better. In his book, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind, Yuval Harari suggests that the largest group that we can live amongst comfortably, knowing our family and neighbours, is 150 of our fellows – above this number we need to call on cultural developments to substitute for our personal knowledge of people. In essence, up to 150 people – then first hand knowledge and gossip allow us to cope, above this we need extra strategies.
In the city I was aware that I was in a huge amorphous mass of people. Because we lived closely packed together our privacy became important. It was important to keep your life separate from your neighbours as we lived cheek by jowl with them. When the situation forces you to live close with your fellows and en masse it becomes important to keep your distance. Paradoxically, though I lived in a large group I knew relatively few people, I knew my immediate neighbours, but relatively few others in the street. I knew very little about people living 100 yards from my front door.
In place of my local community I had my professional community. I mixed with other NHS consultants, lawyers and teachers, in short I mixed with people like me. We would meet and bemoan why others did not see the world as we did and could not see how correct we were in our analyses. In the days before social media there were already echo chambers and I lived inside one. My already skewed viewpoint became increasingly bent by agreement and repetition.
When I moved, one of the first obvious differences I noted were the simple benefits of living in a small local community. Within a very short period I knew my neighbours; I knew the shop workers, the staff that worked in the local farmers market, the farm workers, the foresters, the mechanics, the people who worked the land adjacent to ours. I quickly discovered that I knew many more people, not just by sight but their name and history, than I ever had known when I lived in the large city.
It was, and is, a pleasant feeling to recognise your fellows when out and about. It gives a warm feeling of community and sense of security. During the recent storms it was our neighbours who sorted out the problems of fallen trees and blocked roads well before the local authority even thought about responding. When I have had problems with livestock it has been neighbours who have assisted and I have, in my turn, assisted them. When walking through the town centre I can recognise the faces of strangers and visitors to the area as I know who is local and who is just passing through.
In the main I like this but I have been aware that this is not a simple relationship but something that strikes at the core of living in a community. Because I know others, they know me, this means my reputation is much more important than it ever was before. When you are anonymous it doesn’t matter much about your reputation. If you committed some heinous crime life would be much harder in a small community. True, if there were exonerating circumstances these may be more likely to be recognised (and taken into account), but failing this if you become the outlaw then you might prefer the anonymity of the city rather than the gaze of your fellows.
However, even at a much smaller level this reliance on reputation and knowledge of our fellows is important and, I feel, has beneficial effects on our behaviour. Imagine you are driving through town and someone pulls out suddenly and cuts you up. In the city it is all too easy to jerk the finger and shout the expletives, you’ll never see them again. In this community you might look in the car window and see your elderly neighbour on the way home after a worrisome visit to the doctors, you really don’t want to be shouting and gesticulating. Indeed had you done so you would rightly feel ashamed about your uncouth behaviour.
In the town if you drive along and notice someone with a flat tyre it is quite easy to drive past and reassure yourself that they will have phoned for help. Here, in this community, you will know that you could be recognised, even if you do not recognise them, and it will be known that you did not help. Passing on the other side would be the wrong thing to do, your reputation would suffer, and you would tend to feel shame and guilt that you had not taken the opportunity to help a fellow in need. In smaller communities you will tend to work with the same people again and again rather than interacting with many people on single, or a few, occasions. This allows you to develop your reputation by repeatedly showing such characteristics as honesty, fairness, punctuality or diligence. In short, you are able to demonstrate your honour.
I had not anticipated that a move to a smaller community would put me in closer contact to feelings of shame and its opposite honour. I am glad that it has as it has reconnected me with my own core beliefs. I know what I think is important and I now have to try to live in accord with these principles. This rediscovery of shame is important and beneficial. It is through shame that we change our behaviour, without it we can plod on seemingly oblivious to our failings and mistakes. I fear in larger societies we have substituted a culture of dignity for a culture of honour. We have substituted the right to respect for the duty to earn it. While this may help maintain social cohesion by asking very little of individuals other then a modicum of good behaviour it means we lose some of the ability for self-improvement.
In a culture which has little role for shame, and tends to feel that we should accept everyone for who they are regardless, there are few prompts for people to improve themselves. As I have reported before, I wish people had cared enough about me, and dared, to comment on my gluttony and obesity so that shame may have driven me to diet – rather than, as was the case, fear of death from diabetic complications prompting me to do so. For many of the current problems by which we are beset, are often the consequences of excess, indulgence or of short term thinking – an early experience of shame might be much preferable to the later damage experienced.
Most religions, indeed most moral codes, stress the importance of self awareness and self scrutiny so that we may be aware of our failings and correct them. The story of Adam and Eve in the bible can be read as mankind’s discovery of shame and recognition of our failings is integral to Christianity (“Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20) . Likewise recognition of misdeeds and repentance are core constructs in the Jewish (Teshuva) and Islamic faiths (Tawba) and means whereby we instruct ourselves to become better people.
If we build an increasingly shameless society, one in which we are fearful of judging our own or others behaviour, we should not be surprised if it behaves in a shameless manner. If we take away one of our checks and balances we can expect to see increasing problems with excessive consumption, poor interpersonal relationships and failure to be good custodians of our environment. Let’s hear it for shame ! Even in large societal groups we still need shame, the exhortation that “If it feels good do it !” is fine as long as it is accompanied by the knowledge “If it is wrong don’t do it”, you need both halves of the equation to live well.
(*) In this case it is my grammar, and ending a sentence with a preposition, which causes my blushes – “There is always something of which we can be ashamed” – Sorry, I’ll try harder. This is something I won’t put up with !