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Community Building After Tragedy

Vector illustration of a city street with colorful icons of carsMy satirical policy recommendation: Bowling in every street.

You chuckle. But, in the States, we are striking out at the type of grassroots events that bind neighborhoods into communities and transform wary strangers into community leaders.

Robert Putnam’s book is more apropos than ever. In his bestselling Bowling Alone, he tackles the decline of social institutions. We don’t bowl together or host neighborhood parties. Our social connectivity is now through virtual platforms.

Without these social ties, we isolate ourselves, puttering away free time in front of plasma televisions and MacBook Pros. Our neighbors are streaming the same shows and browsing the same sites. Yet we — flickering iPads and TVs in the background — prefer virtual bowling on the latest gaming console over actual bowling with apartment 4A’s new tenants.

Does this matter as we observe in horror the unfolding violence on our television screens? My supposition: It does.

While America celebrates its diversity, we simultaneously retreat into homogenous neighborhoods, schools, and religious institutions. We self-segregate, isolating ourselves in a cocoon of whiteness or blackness or Christianity. We construct gated communities, stationed with guards in military-like barracks, to protect ourselves. We hurl “radical Islam” and “Christian values” at nonbelievers. We disparage low-income neighborhood as “ghettos. ” In a culture of mistrust, we live and bowl alone.

Orlando is the latest tragedy. Sadly, our response is predictable. From Aurora to San Bernadino to Watertown, we mourn the senseless violence. We condemn the perpetrator and change our Facebook or Twitter status to honor the bereaved families. We are Orlando. And Virginia Tech. And the latest grief-stricken community.

In the immediate aftermath, we do bowl together. We check on our neighbors, gather for public tribute at the local park, and exchange small talk with the friendly store checker. We linger at the neighborhood coffee house, striking up a conversation with a familiar acquaintance. We belong.

But, soon, this sense of community fades. Work consumes us, or maybe it is the kids. As we return to our independent lives, the wanton violence marches on ceaselessly. Why? The answer is more nuanced than the disaffected perpetrator spraying bullets into a crowded nightclub.

The United States is the most violent country among developed countries. We are approaching the 20th anniversary of Columbine. As this chilling milestone approaches, we continue to wrestle with inexplicable violence. Is there something symptomatic about American culture?

We are a generous, thoughtful country. Our political leaders clamor for tighter gun control regulations, expanded mental health services, and a wider social safety net. Wiser voices trump the racial invective and fear-mongering.

But our independence — lauded as a core Americanism — erodes social ties. Public spaces such as the community room in your apartment building sit untouched. Instead of striking up an authentic conversation, we opt for “conversation” apps on our latest technological marvels. Our social needs — the deep-seated need to belong and be a part of community — fray into class, racial, and religious divisions.

Community matters. It particularly matters when you are an outsider — a mental health consumer, a LGBTQ+ member, and, I suspect, when you are a disgruntled lone wolf. Like a huge family, we cry together during national tragedies. But, in a ironic twist, we are too busy, stressed, and overworked to celebrate accomplishments — the neighbor’s job promotion, the security guard’s wedding. Let’s bind ourselves to change that.

Community Building After Tragedy

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Community Building After Tragedy. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 Jun 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.