Communal Experiences

After last night’s Oscar mix-up, I posted a brief comment on Facebook about the value of communal experiences. I wanted to explore that topic more thoroughly here.

To me, a shared communal experience is seeing a play, a concert, or a film in a setting where I likely don’t know the people around me, but where we may have a shared emotional reaction to the event. Why do I think that is valuable? Perhaps it’s because of some early communal experiences that I can recall in vivid detail.

One of the first that comes to mind was seeing “E.T.” in the theater. At key moments in the film, I realized that I was crying and so were my mother and sister. Even more astonishing was that other people around us—complete strangers—were also crying. The film was powerful enough to get a group to share and express their emotions openly, even though doing so made them vulnerable. I was a kid who was afraid of strong emotions, so experiencing that outpouring of feeling amazed me.

Another moment that stands out was waiting to see “Return of the Jedi.” I was anxious about what had happened to my favorite heroes, but the women sitting behind us talked a lot about seeing Billy Dee Williams because he was “fine.” That changed my perception of the film and its cast. I didn’t even know the actor’s name who played Lando, but I knew when he first appeared in the film because they pointed him out to one another. He was in disguise the first time he appeared on screen, and I wouldn’t have recognized him without their comments. I felt like I was “in the know” because I shared that moment with them.

My mother, step father, and I saw “Platoon” in the theater, and my mom often said she’d have never let me go if she had only known how graphic and disturbing it was. The most disturbing thing for us was seeing the grown men in the audience—many of whom seemed to be the right age to be Vietnam War veterans—crying inconsolably during the film. I hadn’t often seen the men in my life cry, so seeing so many react during a film has stayed with me.

Plays, musicals, and concerts have also been moments of shared experiences for me. At The Eagles’ Long Road Out of Eden concert, the band played a song about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was sobbing through the song, as were several other people. One woman sobbed while her husband sat stone-faced and glaring. She lacked tissues, and another person in the audience passed her some. That moment of shared grief and connection, which seemed to embarrass them both, was only possible in that venue.

Why go on about this? Because I think we’re losing opportunities to connect with others in this way. So much of what I watch or hear is in the isolation of my own home. I don’t often attend concerts or a screening of a film with others in my community. With everything on demand and in the comfort of my own living room, I miss out on the human connections that art offers.

Art is a powerful force that can show us our shared humanity by reminding us that we all have the capacity to laugh, cry, and love. But that only works if we actually experience the art. And it’s most powerful when we experience it together.

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