By Michael Rossmann
The middle of downtown in a busy city is not where you expect to find many men walking around with bottles of vegetable oil, bags of sugar, or packages of diapers as if this was completely normal. This was the scene, however, that followed the looting that I witnessed first-hand.
While waiting for another passenger, our car was suddenly enveloped by a mob of young men trying to take anything – and I mean anything – that they could get their hands on from a nearby grocery store before the police came with tear gas. People cheered with their loot as they passed our stopped car, some showing signs of struggle, like a face covered in the flour they had attempted to steal.
This was not humanity at its brightest moment. Normally behaved people can do foolish and even terrible things when in a mob.
Out of the country and now realizing that I’m no longer as up-to-date on the culture of young people, I only heard about the “cinnamon challenge” from a New York Times article. Those attempting such a challenge try to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon in under 60 seconds without drinking water. Judging by the thousands of “epic fail” videos posted on YouTube, the challenge is extremely difficult, though even more concerning is how potentially harmful it can be to one’s health, as the Times article illustrates.
I’m not immune from such stupidity. The most cinnamon I’ve consumed at once was from two servings of my mother’s apple crisp, though I’m nearly certain I would have tried such a challenge if I were a teenager. While none of my friends had heard of the cinnamon challenge when I was a freshman in high school, we all attempted the “gallon challenge,” whereby one tries to drink an entire gallon of milk in an hour without vomiting. I won’t describe how that ended in case any of you are eating.
I never would have tried to drink an entire gallon of milk if I were alone, though groups can lead us to do things we never thought we were capable of, even activities harmful to ourselves or others that we could regret for the rest of our lives.
So, what are we to do? Run for the hills and live like a hermit? Of course not. Community is far too valuable. The mob mentality can be destructive, but community can also push us to be the best versions of ourselves. If anything, most of us need more community in our lives, not less.
I ran cross country in high school, and we practiced in the morning before school. Not all of us were morning people, but because I knew that Scott and Lauren would be there and that they counted on my being there as well, we never missed practice. Being part of this community enabled us to run seven miles before most of our classmates had even gotten up in the morning.
Similarly, the faith journey is inherently communal, which reflects the very communal nature of our triune God. Not only did we all rely on others to teach us how to pray, but I need the influence of others to keep me going. While I could tell myself that I will pray on my own instead of going to church, I’m far more likely to spend that time browsing the Internet than actually communicating with God if I don’t have a faith community.
Knowing how community is necessary in order for me to be the best version of myself, it was concerning to read a recent column by David Brooks of the New York Times in which he describes the increasing atomization of our society. A Google database of over five million books published from 1500 to 2008 reveals how the change in the words that we use reflects a decreasing role of the community and our increasingly individualistic society.
Perhaps, our loss of community might actually mean a reduction in the “mob mentality” and thus lead to fewer hospital visits due to ingesting cinnamon, for example.
What is far more important and concerning, though, is that a decreased sense of community would mean that the best parts of ourselves would fail to be unlocked.
(Michael Rossmann, SJ is a Jesuit scholastic currently teaching at Loyola High School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is a 2003 graduate of Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City. )
(This article was originally published on americamagazine.org on June 23, 2013, and is reprinted with the permission of America Press, Inc.)