A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

The Joys and Evils of Small Communities


An English town (don’t know which) that I glimpsed from a passing tour bus

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of closed and/or small communities, such as small towns, exclusive social circles, churches and other belief-based communities, small schools and colleges, etc. And what I think is that they pack a lot of power: they can provide a deep sense of fun, belonging, and social richness (or, a deep sense of alienation, unbelonging, and loneliness in those who don’t fit in with the rest of the group!); but perhaps even more powerful is the way small communities can limit their members’ perception and views of the world, by reinforcing prejudices through “group think” and preventing exposure of new ideas. I know this doesn’t happen in every small community, but it happens in a big way in some.

I came out of one of those severely limiting small communities—I grew up in fundamentalist churches and Christian schools (and then went on to a super fundamentalist Bible college). It wasn’t until life busted me out of that world against my will that my mind opened up to the possibility that people outside my fundamentalist circle might actually merit my sympathy, friendship, and most of all, listening, rather than my indoctrinated condemnation.

Yet at the same time, as stifling and sick as my exclusive religious circle was, I’m truly glad I got to experience social life under the magnifying glass of a small community. Knowing everyone and being known, knowing my place, always having people to rely on and turn to—or turn against!—and having a whole community of likeminded people with built-in “inside jokes” and tacit understanding—it was a very rich experience that I am grateful for.

I see that experience reflected in stories I read or watch about other small communities (and I would venture to guess that at least half, maybe even two-thirds, of all non-genre fiction could fit into this category!). Right now I’m reading The House of Mirth—I adore Edith Wharton but hadn’t read this one yet (and I am being newly awed by Wharton’s skill!)—which is what has stirred up these reflections in me, by its examination of life in exclusive New York social circles at the turn of the twentieth century contrasted with life outside those circles. In this story, my own story, and tons of other stories, I see the incredible intensity that small communities can give to both social life and intellectual limitations.

(I just remembered where I got the phrase “the magnifying glass of a small community”: Agatha Christie uses that metaphor often in her Miss Marple books, which I love. Miss Marple is not a detective; she’s just an observant old woman who has lived in a small village all her life, and she is uncannily able to read people’s motives by making connections with incidents that happened in “the magnifying glass” of her village.)

I’m not part of a small community now. I have friends and family, but they’re all kind of disjointed from each other, and I do sometimes miss the easy, built-in social life that I used to have through being part of a small community. (I am working with some friends on building a local secular humanist community, but it’s slow going.) However, I really prefer my new free life, which is wonderfully spacious with plenty of room for growing!

Can you relate to any these reflections?


3 comments on “The Joys and Evils of Small Communities

  1. whatmeread
    May 1, 2015

    The comment about “indoctrinated condemnation” was a little chilling. It’s sad, isn’t it? when we are brought up not to accept others, just because they have a different faith, for example, or are different in some other way. I personally describe myself as someone for whom religion has always been a sort of black hole, but one of the tenets of my upbringing by my (fairly nonreligious) parents was not to judge other people.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 1, 2015

      Very sad. But the more tolerant, accepting, and open-minded people I meet—like you!—the more I am encouraged. If/when I have kids, this is definitely something I want to teach them, as your parents did.

      Thanks for your thoughts!


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