I have decided to be a poet. My father said that there isn't a suitable career structure for poets and no pensions and other boring things, but I am quite decided. He tried to interest me in becoming a computer operator, but I said 'I need to put my soul into my work and it is well known that computers haven't got a soul.' My father said, 'The Americans are working on it.' But I can't wait that long. (Sue Townsend, The Sacred Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, p102)Well said, Adrian! Stand your ground! If only I'd stuck to my poetic guns at your age ... just think of the volumes of villanelles, the stacks of sestinas, the plenitude of pantoums ... not to mention the veritable library of limericks I could've penned by now. Instead, here I am, operating computers day in, day out, with barely a weekday evening free to scrape together a few lines of light verse here and there. I've got some serious catching up to do ...
Got gaps in my reading to catch up on, too. Imagine! Arriving at the advanced age of 31 1/2 without ever having so much as held a copy of Adrian Mole. Slightly less surprising, perhaps, when one considers that, in my family home growing up, it probably would've been outlawed as obscene literature. (He measured his what now?!) By the time I had flown the nest it was too late: the literary regime on which I had come to pride myself was too "intellectual" to readily accommodate such a "frivolous" work (I'm sure Adrian would empathise). In fact, it took a crisis of sorts to prompt me to finally pick it up: I needed an antidote to Gravity's Rainbow -- a book which I thoroughly appreciated throughout, though didn't very much enjoy in places (wanna see what obscenity really looks like, folks? eek).  Mr. W prescribed Adrian Mole and, I must say, it worked a treat. I was charmed by Adrian's contradictorily stereotypical teenage non-conformity ... his anxieties, his earnest self-righteousness, his strangely realistic ability to hold deep adolescent insecurity in tension with unshakeable self-confidence... "Perhaps when I am famous and my diary is discovered people will understand the torment of being a 13 3/4 year old undiscovered intellectual."
But what surprised me about the book was how moving I found it -- in particular, for the bucket-loads of straightforward, unpretentious compassion and social responsibility demonstrated not just by Adrian but by nigh-on the entire community of characters. When the ageing Bert becomes too frail to manage at home on his own (whilst remaining too stubborn and full of life to stomach the prospect of sheltered accommodation), Adrian, his struggling-to-make-ends-meet family, and their socially and culturally diverse neighbours all rally round as best they can. Adrian visits frequently (bar the odd guilty lapse) as part of a school program which lets him miss maths on Monday afternoons; he cooks him 'decent meals' of Vesta chow mein and Instant Whip, and works through his backlog of washing up. During a spell in hospital half the town (seemingly) have a go at dogsitting the fearsome Sabre, until Penelope's father foots the bill for him to go into a kennel. On Bert's 'escape' from the ward, he stays in the Mole house for a while, and then with their new neighbours the Singhs. Eventually, Adrian and Penelope et al. clean and rearrange his house ("We have moved his bed into the lounge so that he can watch television in bed") to give him another shot at independent living. Although the charmingly supercilious teenage couple have their moments, it's not high-minded idealism that stirs them and their community to look after Bert; it's simple good-natured pragmatism. That's just what you do, right? When someone needs help? You help them ... where you can, anyway. And they find they can't always -- not in every eventuality -- and in fact he does end up in a old people's home, for a while at least.
This view of need, community, mutual assistance seems in stark contrast to the increasing contemporary drive towards individualism -- keeping oneself to oneself and looking after one's own interests. It put me in mind of some of the anecdotal evidence presented by anthropologist David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, of village and tribal cultures across the world, historically and contemporarily, where communal living is taken 'as a given':
"...if a cabin of hungry people meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers the little which remains to them without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same danger of perishing as those whom they help..." [Quoting Joseph-François Lafitau, an 18th century Jesuit missionary and ethnologist studying Iroquois culture.]
Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly: "Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs." [Peter Freuchen was a 20th century explorer and anthropologist who lived among the Polar Inuit in Greenland.]
[The] Nuer find it almost impossible, when dealing with someone they have accepted as a member of their camp, to refuse a request for almost any item of common consumption, so that a man or woman known to have anything extra in the way of grain, tobacco, tools, or agricultural implements can be expected to see their stockpiles disappear almost immediately. [Citing the work of 20th century anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard.]It also made me think of the beautiful/challenging descriptions of life in the early church:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)Aargh, should the church now literally be doing literally this? Now? Aargh, I don't know ... all sorts of "it was a different phase of growth and in a different societal context" type of convenient excuses spring to mind. But however the practical details are supposed to be worked out there is no excusing away the significance of community in God's Kingdom, and there is no real debate about how best to respond to a person in need. "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17) 
Oh! but I find this hard. Especially given my (ever more exaggerated, I fear) tendencies towards introversion. I recognise the value of community but I can't escape the fact that I seem to require considerable amounts of "alone time" to maintain sufficient "well-being" to keep abreast of my day-to-day responsibilities. And I'm not completely closed to need, or to my ability to sometimes contribute towards it, but I am far more comfortable doing so in moderation and at arm's length. I don't think the answer is to become an extrovert (if that is even possible); I reckon that, when community is 'working well', there should be plenty of space for introverts within it. I take encouragement from the fact that Jesus spent considerable amounts of time alone with God (e.g. Luke 5:16, Matthew 14:13, Mark 1:35). However, he very much had a community around him (e.g. Luke 5:1-11, Matthew 9:13, John 13:1-20), and was powerfully compassionately responsive to need (e.g. Luke 13:10-17, John 8:3-11, Matthew 15:32-39). He's shown that it is definitely not an 'either or'; it gives me hope that I will begin to figure out a 'right place' in community as part of the 'becoming more like Jesus' transformation that God (I trust) is working in my own life. Lately, though, I feel I could sit undisturbed in a room with my books and a nice glass of red for inordinate stretches of time before I started to want to talk to anyone again. So, well, some way to go, it seems :-/
 On the upside, information gleaned from the phenomenally broad and intricately-researched scope of the novel has already come in handy in at least one Only Connect question, and I anticipate many more such mini triumphs.
 If my choice of passages seems to emphasise inward looking service (i.e., the church community looking after itself) there's plenty in the Bible to set our sights (far) more broadly. Take, for example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan -- Jesus' challenging answer to the lawyer who was "desiring to justify himself" with the question "who is my neighbour?"
[Thumbnail image cc by @aerial_m on Flickr.]