May 5, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Nowdays, we’re no longer a nation of joiners

There was a time when clubs and social organizations of all kinds were an important part of almost every American’s life. Both men and women joined religious, professional, political or other kinds of groups which dealt with their interests, and offered them emotional and sometimes material support.

The culture reflected this, with many jokes about ditzy “club women” insisting on doing good deeds despite the protestations of their charitable recipients. Or cartoons about the Elks or Odd Fellows justifying their convivial gatherings with solemn rites or prayers. The New Yorker was full of these funny characters.

Still, in spite of all their faults, or maybe because of them, the groups that people joined gave them comfort. They appealed to their sense of identity as individuals and as members of worthy communities. And in the good old American way, they were social levelers.

For Catholic immigrants, the parish ladies guild not only gave ordinary women a measure of dignity as official “church ladies,” but also afforded them a night off from husband and kids and housework. For Catholic men, often hard-working laborers, joining the Knights of Columbus was a way to gain social status like that of the influential men who belonged to the Masonic orders.

Businessmen and community leaders joined the Rotary Club to promote their interests and those of their hometown. Others belonged to the Lions Club or Sertoma or some other organization devoted to charitable works. A substantial lunch or dinner was usually part of their agenda.

Urban ladies joined “literary” societies, where they promoted culture and the arts by giving “book reviews,” then enjoying tea, cookies and gossip afterward.

Rural women belonged to homemaker clubs sponsored by land-grant university extension services. These were designed to offer social and educational opportunities to country ladies who had limited access to such things. And they gave them a rare chance to set a pretty table and “entertain.”

But times have changed. With the advent of instant communication and information technology, not to mention more women working outside the home, club membership lagged during recent decades. Trying to juggle child care, jobs, fitness regimens and whatever else is important to them now gives men and women less time just to socialize. Nor do they see much need to “improve” themselves culturally or spiritually.

Volunteerism also suffers from a dearth of local bodies to fill local needs, with the result that people must be hired to do what used to be done for free. Some organizations, such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, still offer real charity, but they’re becoming fewer. Even sadder, the result of all this is that although we accommodate our modern material “needs,” we don’t make time for spiritually enriching ones.

Instead of complaining, however, I think we should reset priorities. We need to place service to others, the exchange of ideas with friends, and plain old fun at the top of the “Must Do” list, along with the job and the commute. Maybe we don’t need the fraternal orders and ladies clubs anymore, but we still need what they used to give us.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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