Friday, August 18, 2017

Reflections on community...

What is about the search for community that leaves so many confused, ambivalent  even discouraged and certainly less than optimistic?

We are supposedly hardwired to be “social” to seek out others and intrinsically to want to help others. And to an extent we are pleasant, polite, and sociable when we meet those we have become familiar with, over a considerable length of time. And yet, such pleasantries are no surrogate for “getting to know” the other. Indeed, they may well be a defense against “social intimacy”. Of course, if and when we encounter an emergency, a fire, a flood, an accident, a break-in or robbery, we are all filled with adrenalin to do our part. Rescuers, paramedics, or just “doing what anyone else would do if faced with the same situation, we find both the energy and the strength to speak to strangers as if we have known them for a much longer time. We also put our own issues aside in the full conscious awareness that the needs of the other easily eclipse whatever we are going through.

Similarly, when in line for a public event, especially if the time stretches beyond a few minutes, strangers become on-the-spot acquaintances, often spilling their life story in an act of open dialogue that would be highly unlikely, if not out of the question in our apartment building, or on our block. Such queues, of course, have already found people interested in experiencing the same thing, whether it be a movie, a boat cruise, a plane trip to a common destination. So there is a bottom line of something in common, aa well as the “fill-in-the-time” avoidance of boredom and the “time-drag”.

Another occasion that seems to find people conversing without prior acquaintance centres on a “conversation piece” of a unique vehicle, a unique feature on a tech device, or a unique picture in the sky or on the horizon, as will undoubtedly happen in North America as millions watch the anticipated solar eclipse. People who walk their dogs in public parks will often find strangers inquiring about the “breed” of the dog, the age, and the “personality” of the dog, especially from others who, too, are fond of those animals. Infrequently, upon entering an urban restaurant, one is greeted by a departing guest extolling the food and the service of the establishment.

Increasingly, however, most folks have their eyes downward focused on their smart phones, “connecting” with people they “know” in what appears to be a pattern of behaviour that has more influence on them than the direct face-to-face contact would generate. There is, after all, a kind of veil of privacy provided by the devices, giving us all the opportunity to “connect” without really experiencing the full impact of the body language, by either party. This new dimension has made it possible for each of us to morph into a ghost-like character presenting ourselves, either in tweets or on facetime, as only partially “available” to the other.

For arranging appointments, co-ordinating schedules, exploring catalogues, and even for many other functional details, the tech devices have more than proven their value. And yet, for real human contact, the kind on which community depends, for the “showing-up” of each person, there is no digital substitute.

Small towns, where traditionally most people know a fair amount about most of the people who live there, exhibit a much higher level of face-to-face contact in the local coffee shops, and at the many events that find dates on the calendars of most families….baptisms, weddings, bar-and-bat-mitzvahs, funerals, and other civic occasions. Sporting events, too, offer opportunities for parents to share the skill development of their children, while venting their frustrations at the occasional “unfair” officiating call.

And while it is true that any of these passing moments can and often do lead to further contact, it is also true that the general public interest in and openness to participating in more lengthy conversations about more than “small talk” is quite limited. If there is a national or even an international event, or “cloud” that captures public interest (fear, anxiety, disgust, abhorrence, or even “funnybone”) it will generate a round of water-cooler talk. In this vein, weather, at least in Canada, is a “safe” topic. Yet, there is a limited range of acceptable topics for this “circle” and anyone who deviates from that acceptable norm is out of sync with the group.

And we are, both individually and collectively, highly adept and even eager, to find those attributes that offer opportunities to put the other down. It could be a speech impediment, a body size or shape, a physical/intellectual impediment, a racial or religious difference from the ‘group’ (as if we really fully felt as if we “belonged” to a group). Recent evidence suggests that even babies by six months, turn their eyes away from other six-month-olds whose visual appearance is different from their own. This evidence comes as part of the proof that some level of racism is endemic to everyone. The next question, of course, is whether we all have to be “taught” to love and accept others, or whether that trait is naturally an integral part of each person’s DNA.

And that starting point, in the world view of each person, is obviously highly determinative of the experiences one encounters for the rest of our lives. Levels and expectations of trust in the “other” are in part determined by this variable factor, within each of us. Levels of detachment, suspicion, scepticism and avoidance are also deeply dependent on this single variable.

If we start, where the Christian church has taught us to start, that everyone is full of sin, ‘having come short of the glory of God,’ and “unworthy to pick up the crumbs from under the (eucharistic) table”….then it is only ‘natural’ that we would have to be “saved” from our own isolation, depravity and dark side. And from this starting point, one is severely restricted about one’s “likeability” and sociability. This kind of “scarring” brings with it the potential of many different attitudes and perceptions, none of them free from the self-and-other perception of something akin to “worthless”. One such emanation is the notion that we will spend the rest of our lives recovering from Original Sin, and the concomitant need for both an internal and an external “Critical Parent” who will chastise, sanction, punish and generally control one’s behaviour.

And we have a booming business for Critical Parents in North America….as well as the obvious and deleterious infantilism that the “CP” requires. Developmental psychology, through whose lens we all learn about how we all change, grow, evolve, shedding early patterns and prejudices and become the “mature” adult we had hoped we would become very early contrasts with the “religious” (Christian) monochromatic “sinner” image the church dispenses. And the working out of this conflict takes decades for many, a life time for others and for some, it is never worked out. The adage that one cannot return home without encountering the experience of being the little child who left” in the mind and perception of those remaining continues to operate, although our rational mind knows different. The positive contribution of the “critical parent” when children are learning to avoid physical danger, “bad people” and seductive temptations continues to be sustained by many religious institutions, primarily for their own control needs….church then as extrinsic Critical Parent, an archetype that not only does not “fit” any deity, but supplants and/or subverts for many adults the development of the “internal” critical parent of the mature adult.

Colleges and universities offer ready-made opportunities to “rub shoulders” with others in similar programs, on the same floor in residence, in the same apartment or rooming house on the same committees or student councils. And while friendships develop, much of this type of encounter tends to be driven by the immediate ‘project’ or special interest. To be sure, life long relationships do develop, especially  among those who move on to grad school together.

Yet, at least for many males, (this may be less true for females) many of these “relationships” are focused on the  project or the team, and often skirt past the private details of one’s personal, emotional life experiences. The rise of Employee Assistance programs, (the outsourcing of many of the human contacts, to preserve the confidentiality of the individual) is clear evidence of how outsourcing the human contact to the “professionals” has supplanted and replaced the human contact that previously characterized many workplaces and local groups. It is our penchant for secrecy, in an age when a bruise on our personal reputation can sink a career, that drives much of our avoidance of participation in community development. Bosses as critical parents, however, is a feature of our contemporary culture that needs strict limitations, and with the demise of the labour movement, there is very little to restrain the employers from excising any individual who threatens the perfect reputation of the ‘firm’.

Ironically, there no single human being who is completely “free” from the possibility that life will deal a “hand of cards” that appear to compromise his/her career, and the brittle and perfect and neurotic public image of  the corporation. Life changing tidal waves, not only of  the life-death variety, hit the shores of our lives every day and if we were honest, compassionate and integrous, we would engender attitudes, processes and beliefs that integrated these truths into our professional lives.

Of course, such a process would render our workplaces much more messy, unpredictable and humane than the current clinical, hygienic, sterile and disconnected cultures we have created. Both management and unions have made large contributions to the current climate of isolated silos staring at screens, talking on phones and driving alone in vehicles, where job descriptions, time allotments, performance incidents and rules (of the critical parent) are in charge of the human contact.

And, of course, our churches, schools, universities and corporations have a common theme: “performance is king”….and our ability and willingness to measure performance (as a function of cost, and the option to reduce costs as the driving principle) grows exponentially daily, even hourly. And many of these measurements are administered in dollar ‘costs’ and “percentage of mistakes” in the scientific management belief that by tightening the collar on performance, those in charge will get the bonuses they deserve.

Whether the “people” in the organizations “feel” engaged, valued, and honoured, is a conversation for the pub after work, but certainly not for the  HR department or the executive suite.

On the other hand, however, if we begin from a place where we are loved (and loveable) by others and by God, then it is much more likely, even potentially predictable, that we will remain open, receptive, gregarious and engaging in all opportunities for “community” even if those opportunities do not involve formal memberships, formal creeds and oaths, formal rituals and obligations, and formal attire.

Community, obviously, depends on trust as does personal disclosure. One has to feel confident that personal information will not be splashed all over the neighbourhood, or the office, or the congregation, or the curling rink, in order to be willing to share, both as recipient and as discloser. And we all have a compendium of experiences in which our lives have been shredded by others, for their personal need/pleasure/revenge/superiority or whatever other stimulus might be behind the exposure. Often too, that “exposure” is not based in truth or reality. The human capacity for “assuming” and for “presuming” and for prying and for gossip, the fuel that serves as a “communicide” weeding out many of the first ‘green shoots’ of a potential authentic community, is so deeply ingrained, nurtured by convention and enhanced by repeated use.

There is another potential argument against the “spontaneous combustion” of community; and that is that only “needy” people are even thinking about their desire for (need of) community. Oh sure, if one is bereaved, then joining a “bereaved” group to share grief, memories, denial, anger and reconciliation is an open possibility. And for those who have suffered from a criminal act, there is comfort and solace in sharing with other ‘victims of violence’. Similarly, divorced persons might be willing to “process” their loss with others going through a similar tragedy. Based on a specific identifiable “need” or “loss” or “emptiness” or trauma, many people are feeling sufficiently vulnerable to risk exposing their vulnerability to others in a similar state of vulnerability.

Yet, what if we humans were honest about our vulnerability as a normal state, and set aside our fears and our anxieties about trust, and take the risk of actually entering a state of community where those anxieties could be lifted and dissipated through the very courage and experience of sharing, risking and trusting?

The notion of “doing” and of “function” has so come to pervade our culture that those considerations that foster “being” for its own sake, connecting for its own sake, and belonging for its own sake have been dismissed  without being given a fair trial. Moreover, loneliness stalks the land, in every village, town and city….and people are all around all of us. We are like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from which a memorable line rings out: Water water everywhere without a drop to drink!

Of course, salt water is not the most palatable drink. And other people do not qualify as “salt water”….but their ubiquity and their loneliness walk into the office with us, enter our classrooms with us, sit beside us in our pews, and sit in the other booths at Tim’s having coffee every day. And, it is not more professionals that we need to counsel us about our health, or our legal affairs, or even our spiritual lives. In fact, there is a significant gap in conscious connection between most of these professionals and the people they “serve” and that detachment (call it objective professionalism) is a major barrier to our feeling connected to other human beings on the planet.

The work of the professionals, like the exchange between the store-keeper and his customer, is a transactional dynamic that requires, even demands, a protocol, a measurable service, and most often a specific prescription and action as follow-up. It is not that conversations with “professionals” are evil; it is just that they are stunted, protracted and problem-solution-based, like a visit to the local mechanic when the car needs brakes.

“Hanging out” that old adolescent-permitted and even encouraged “waste of time” was never wasted and never without stimulation, provocation and especially connection. As adults, naturally, we would come to the opportunity to “hang out” with people who wanted also to “hang out” (for its own sake) with a very different perspective and expectation than we did at sixteen. That difference, however, need not be an impediment to fostering community. In fact, it could enhance both the depth and the rewards of a relationship among mature adults.

There is, of course, the question of whether “community” requires the participation by both genders in the same community. Intuitively, it seems that separate gender groups would reduce some of the anxiety, as men and women might wish to share different issues and share them in a different attitude and manner.

Some fortunate readers may already be enjoying the experience of an authentic community. If so, they might offer their suggestions and recommendations to others not so fortunate, but who might be interested in seeking a community that would welcome them.


Community is not a prescription for happiness; nor it is a placebo for every kind of headache. Nevertheless, it is a sign that we can and will reach out to connect not because we have “answers” nor because we want “political or resume networks” nor because we seek to acquire admittance to a social club.

For the simple reason that we consider connection and community and relationship (beyond spouse, and blood family) to be a situation that embraces our person, and not our skill, our emotions as well as our thoughts, our pains as well as our victories, and our biographies as well as our attitude to end of life issues.

We do not seek community to “get fixed” or to transform our personalities, or to eliminate our self-sabotage. 

We seek community for its own sake….and that is reason and purpose enough!     

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