What does it mean to be part of a community?

This past week, two widely reported events should cause us to consider the very nature and meaning of “community”.

The first such event, of course, is the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in which all 176 people on board perished, including a large number of Canadian citizens and others with close ties to Canada. Because many were involved in educational programs of various types, the Canadian university community was hard hit. The response was immediate, unified and sincere. Within my own community of undergraduate deans, there was a flurry of emails and texts expressing concern and offering support. Members of the medical student community came forward expressing concern for friends and colleagues across the country. Although some schools were more directly affected than others, all shared in the sense of loss.

Particularly revealing is that the concern and response to this disaster cut through any issues of cultural or religious background. The victims were remembered not as members of any particular group, but as people we came know as individuals, with personal traits and aspirations with which we could all identify. Obvious differences simply didn’t matter.

Later that same week, we learned of the death of Neil Peart, a member of the legendary Canadian rock band Rush and arguably one of the greatest drummers of all time. Although a member of my generation, Mr. Peart’s appeal was not confined to any age group. In fact, it was my children who drew my attention to his virtuosity and expansive lyrics. When news of his death was announced, tributes appeared on social media from diverse sources – everyone from lead singer and drummer of the Foo Fighters Dave Grohl to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Beyond his great talent, Peart was an iconoclast who always engaged life in his own way with an authenticity and integrity that inspired a community of admirers, young and old. From an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015,  “It’s about being your own hero. I set out to never betray the values that a 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.” This spirit was a rallying call that held an ageless appeal.

The very word “community” has meaning beyond its reference to a group of people living in the same location. A deeper meaning, the one that came so vividly to light in the events of this past week is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

Tragic and sad events are an inevitable aspect of the human condition. Physicians and all health providers accept as a professional responsibility the support and assistance of individual patients and their families through such events. We are prepared and trained to do so. But when tragedy impacts the communities in which we live, we share in the loss and struggle together to find meaning.

These two recent events teach us that the concept of community transcends barriers of culture and age and helps us find some such meaning.

They remind us that community is about the forces that bind us in common interest and intent. Community provides unconditional support and strength.

Community occurs when we choose to focus on what we share rather than what separates us.

In the end, community is a choice.