What happened to our village and how do we get it back?

My name is Serena and, for the purposes of clarifying how I am qualified to write this story, there are a few things you should know about me.

I run a national cancer charity called Mummy’s Wish that helps young Australian families cope when Mum is diagnosed with cancer. My own mum (who was a single Mum) died when I was in Grade 9. I am Mum to two kids of my own and there here have been a pile of times both growing up and as a Mum that my family and I have needed a lot of support.

So here’s the thing. In my humble opinion, humans are for the most part wonderfully good. They are naturally interested in others, hard-wired to please and enjoy the feeling they get when they have helped someone out. But the annoying thing is that when push comes to shove, although we really want to help, there are a few things that slow our efforts to help out down or, in fact, stop them in their tracks completely. Why have helping out and accepting help become so hard?

shutterstock_208817080-1000x700We are all crazy busy. Life powers along at an alarming pace these days and free time is more valuable than saffron. We all live in a blur of overwhelm caused by the constant, incredible demands on our time.  We are constantly contactable via email and phone so are never off duty, our kids do approximately 37,000 extra curricular activities and many of us are in the sandwich generation who care for ageing parents and young children simultaneously. A pile of us raise children alone and if we don’t, then both parties often work all the hours God gives us to support our money-munching lifestyle.

We’re so worried about being considered nosy that we actively avoid knowing anything about individuals and families in our own community. Somehow we have all been convinced that even a simple question about someone’s welfare is snooping, and immediately we check a mirror to see if we are morphing into Gladys Kravitz or Mrs Mangel (am I showing my age by mentioning those women?).  Not only does this stop us from knowing when people around us are in trouble, but it often stops us knowing them at all!

Tricky to build a village or even make someone’s acquaintance when you are basically pretending they don’t exist, in order to be polite.

We are kings and queens of outsourcing. In order to maintain the breakneck speed at which we approach life, we have all learnt to peel off tasks that don’t fit our schedule or lifestyle. We pay someone else to take care of things we don’t want to do or can’t do. This is fine when life is working as it should and is a great drama and time saving idea BUT when things are turned upside down and money is scarce, it often isn’t possible to pay a third party to do stuff for you.

And let’s face it, some of life’s most important tasks aren’t really the kind of things you can easily farm out to someone else. This trend toward outsourcing means that we are so trained to pay for support that we now have zero idea how to ask for help from those immediately around us. We don’t ask because we have been trained that if we can’t do a task, or pay for it to be done, we have somehow failed.

We don’t hang out together. When I was growing up there were a million ways that communities, families and individuals connected.  Many of us went to church, others were members of community organisations like Lions, stay-at-home Mums connected at the school gate before and after school, men convened over golf, footy or at “The Club” and so on and so on and so on.  When you hang, you share and you connect and so when you need something, you are engaged enough to know who to turn to and feel confident to make “the ask”.

What happened to our village and how do we get it back?The need for well-connected and intrinsically helpful communities is still as important as it ever was. We need villages – not just suburbs – in order to address challenges like illness, grief and misfortune, drive community outcomes and effectively raise families. Other cultures have, despite the demands of modern society, managed to retain the village approach to life and the benefit for them is significant.

Sadly in many Australian communities the village is a thing of the past. In my line of work – as CEO of Mummy’s Wish – we see the massive hole created by the rupture in our social fabric. Many families find themselves utterly alone, at a time in their family’s life when they most need a friendly face, willing hands and sound practical advice.

Despite all the doom and gloom about the demise of the village I am pretty hopeful about all this. Why? Because it is clear from Mummy’s Wish’s engagement with families all over the country that people genuinely long to be both inclusive and included.

We want to find our tribes and build our villages to make this world an easier place to navigate. We are all looking to find a way to move from empty promises and surface level friendships to enduring, meaningful relationships with people who we care about. We all wildly collect virtual tribes (friends, likes, connections, followers) in our social media overtures, even though we no longer celebrate them in the real world. I reckon we are still completely up for this Village thing – we just need some help to sew that social fabric back up again.

How can we build our village?

  1. Be curious.

I’m not suggesting you pop that glass up against the wall to eavesdrop on the neighbours, but it is totally okay to be interested in other people’s lives. Say Hi, ask people’s names and introduce yourself and your family. Ask neighbours and colleagues how their weekend was, how their car performs or what their plans are for the holidays. And then, although it is tricky in our busy lives, try and remember what they said so you can build an all important bridge to the next conversation.

  1. Be hospitable.

shutterstock_321634706-hero-1000x690If the State of Origin is coming up or Christmas is just around the corner, use that as an excuse to rip open some supermarket dip, a couple of bags of chips and knock the top off a few beers or a glass of something bubbly. Invite your neighbours round your place, your colleagues to the staff room or your tennis buddies to stay for a cold one after the game. I know life is busy and hospitality on a grand scale is tricky, but bonding over a stubby and corn chip heaped with salsa has just as much ability to build enduring connections as a complicated dinner party.

  1. Be Open.

If life is treating you a little poorly and you feel like you need a hand, sit down and make a list of the things that you NEED help with, the things you should sort out to lighten the load and then lastly, a list of the nice-to-haves. Do a bit of a stocktake of anyone in your circle that might be able to help out with any of the items on any of the lists, with a particular focus on the NEED list first. If the tasks are too big or too scary to ask someone you know, or your circle of connections is limited, perhaps share your list with your boss, the principal at your children’s school or the HR Manager at your work. Even the local priest or community organisations like Lifeline or the Salvos are a good place to start. They will let you know how they can assist, can help you break up your problem into bite sized chunks or even refer you to specialist assistance like Mummy’s Wish. There is no shame in asking for help.

  1. Be Alert.

Life is nuts for everyone and there isn’t much time to stop and smell the roses.  I’m not asking you to stop work so you can attend to everyone else’s whims, but that you open your eyes to what is going on everyday around you. At least once a week try and think of a way to make someone else’s life that little bit easier. Notice if another family is always late for school, pay attention if your staff member looks overwhelmed and exhausted at work, or even try and get the message when someone is making a veiled call for help on Facebook. Offer to car pool the late family, offer to grab a bite to eat with the colleague who looks wiped out or send a private message to the pal crying out for help on social media offering an offline chat.

None of this is THE solution to social isolation. I know that some people can’t be helped, that some problems are beyond you, that life is nuts for everyone and I don’t want you to spend so much time on others that you neglect yourself and those you love. Just suggesting you open your eyes a little wider, open yourself to the possibility that you might need help one day and open up to a world where we once again start to build villages that cherish and nurture those who live in them.


Written By

I am a mid forties CEO and academic, mum to two, partner to one, step-pal to two, ex-wife to one as well as supposedly juggling a pile of other personal and professional relationships. Some days I love myself sick and think I am nailing all this craziness like a boss, other days I appall myself with just how chronically I am screwing up the minefield that is my life.


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