I want to shift our view today from individual spiritual practices and talk about living and flourishing in community. When we act with intention and awareness, all the practices we’ve discussed add to our capacity to create joyful and supportive community. Now let’s explore our connections, our multi-varied and diverse relationships with each other.
Comprehending Community Circles
The Greek philosopher Hierocles gave us a way of thinking about the ties that connect us. He invited us to imagine ourselves in the center of what he called comprehending circles. As we stand in the center circle, other circles radiate out, become larger and more inclusive, enclosing our families, parents and children, then our neighbors, our city, our country. Each larger circle contains the smaller circles. Each circle comprehends, or includes, the one within it. He said, “the outermost and greatest circle, which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race.” He urged us to regard each person in even the larger circles as connected to us, just as those in the circles more familiar to us.
Hierocles taught that we should call even those we don’t know, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, to remind us that we are all connected.
More And More, We Are Left On Our Own To Create Community
Our dependence on each other is a fact of our biology. We know that babies deprived of human contact fail to thrive, developing disorders that may last a lifetime. Dr. John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago Center for cognitive and social neuroscience, has written that the absence of social connection triggers the same primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain.
But what has happened over the years? Our natural social networks, such as family and community, over many decades have become more fragile and transient. My wife tells me that her grandmother didn’t travel more than about 75 miles from her house until she was over 80, when her son insisted on taking her on a trip to see the ocean. Her grandmother may not have been that unusual; in an earlier age, many of us would have lived our entire lives in the towns in which we were born, living and growing old with the same neighbors.
Yet now, we don’t have the same generational, cultural, or geographic connections as in the past. Now, the norm is to leave home, venture out on our own, and make our own way. This can be exhilarating, it’s true, but it also puts us, and those we leave behind, at greater risk for increased social isolation, loneliness, and uncertainty.
More and more, we are forced to create our own community; we no longer are just handed one. Sometimes we succeed, often we don’t. Many fall through the cracks.
We Need Community To Flourish
As I was preparing this talk I found so many articles and research papers on the growing malaise of loneliness, both here in the United States and around the world. In the 1970’s and 80’s, at most, 20% of Americans reported that they frequently or regularly felt lonely. By 2010, in a national study done by the AARP, the percentages were closer to 40-45%.
This is not a small problem. Chronic loneliness can lead to depression, increased stress, reduced sleep, high blood pressure, and greater susceptibility to disease. One study of 3 million people found that chronic loneliness increased chances of an early death by 26%. Dr. Cacioppo says that loneliness puts our brains into self-preservation mode, decreasing empathy for others and reducing our interest in reaching out to form those social connections that can heal us.
Even as adults, we fail to thrive due to loneliness.
The fact that we need community to flourish is a surprise to no one. We know that it reflects the greater truth that we are already connected, already one. Our search for community remains so strong because on a visceral and unconscious level we know we are already connected. It’s who we are – we are trying to complete that connection that makes us whole. Like an electrical circuit, we are alive when we are connected.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about these connections that bind us. He wrote:
All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
This web of mutuality supports us, teaches us and awakens us. It is what supports us in constructing those qualities, those essential human virtues, that make us better people and that make our world a richer and kinder place.
Being In Community Gives Us Opportunities
Let me give you a small illustration of what I mean here. This may resonate with some of you. Last week I spent several hours driving a friend around who didn’t drive but needed help in getting some errands done. I had lots to do, it was hot, and the whole job took longer than I anticipated as more errands got added on.
After about three hours of driving around and sitting and waiting, we had finally finished and I had dropped this friend off. I was sitting at a light, still feeling irritated, and I was irked because I had things I wanted to get done, too.
As I sat there, I was abruptly and inexplicably overcome with a feeling of compassion for my friend, who 2 seconds earlier had been a source of irritation. I realized that he was simply doing the best he could, with courage, humor, and resilience, in a world he really didn’t understand and couldn’t navigate all that well. I moved past my ego, my feeling put upon, to a deep feeling of connection with and compassion for this person.
And the feeling spread, to a sense of compassion not just for him but for all like him, everywhere, who struggled just to get ahead or stay afloat, and who every day were just getting up and doing their best, even if sometimes it didn’t work out so well. My eyes teared up as these feelings went through me. My irritation reversed and became a feeling of gratitude and gladness that I had been able to be there and help him that day. I knew that there was nothing better I could’ve done that day. I also realized the ultimate reality of what I had been doing, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I hadn’t spent the day just driving him around, but had spent it showing that I cared and supported him.
I wouldn’t have had that visceral understanding if I hadn’t spent the morning with my friend. It will stay with me, and will arise and grow in other circumstances with other people.
Being in community gives us opportunities, every day, to build those qualities that reflect the best in us, and that make our world a kinder and better place. Compassion, forgiveness, love – these awakenings arise when we experience the truth of our connection. This understanding arose for me when I felt that connection to my friend. We are connected and our lives are made better when we live from that truth.
Community And Connection In A Simple Piece Of Paper
Let me give you another and a very creative way to think about this. Vietnamese monk and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has articulated the idea of what he calls ‘inter-being.’ This isn’t a word that is in the dictionary yet (I did check), but it no doubt will be soon. It’s a wonderful way to describe, and to think about, the truth Dr. King articulated and the experience I just related to you.
Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates the connection of all life using a simple piece of paper. He says that when we look at this piece of paper, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine were not there, there would be no tree and thus no paper. So, we know the sunshine is in this paper.
The sunshine and the tree inter-are.
When we look at the paper, we also see the tree that became this paper. We see the logger who cut it down, and the food that nourished the logger so that he could do that. We see the logger’s parents, and all generations before without whom there the logger would not have been born. He says, “when we look in this way, we see that without all these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”
By the same token, we can look at our lives and realize how our lives are the end result of millions of interactions and people we never see and don’t even think about, just like Hierocles’ circles. The notion that we can consider ourselves as separate human beings almost becomes laughable. We are anything but. We are caught in Dr. King’s web of mutuality – we add to it and benefit from it.
Focus On Building A Sustaining, Nourishing Community
So, as we said at the beginning, acting with intention and awareness our focus becomes building a sustaining, nourishing community. Supported by community, we can awaken to our better natures and live that truth in the greater world. What are some of the hallmarks of healthy, supportive community?
First, we strive for a community that expands us, and not one we create to insulate or protect us. As I was researching this talk I came across an article about religious communities; it was actually talking about churches. The author was lamenting that too often churches today look like communities created for protection where we can hunker down and keep the world out. We want people who look like us, who think and believe like us. We’re not sure we’ll like anyone else. Are you one of us? Do you belong here?
One of the hallmarks of a loving, healthy community is one that does not jump to define ‘the other.’ So many times we are quick to slap on that designation, and what criteria do we use? Politics, skin color, place of birth?
Let’s not be too quick to identify “the other,” and let’s be aware of the criteria we use. What makes someone into an ‘other?’ It’s so easy to make it a long list.
We need to be aware, and cautious of, creating or seeking community that is nothing but extension of self – thinks like me, looks like me. We do so much better when we embrace community that stretches us, that leads us to new experiences and new understandings.
Healthy community encourages us to remain flexible and curious, slow to judge and with a tolerance for ambiguity that may arise when we encounter people or cultures with which we’re not familiar. How much freer are we when we decide that different need not mean threatening? Let’s create communities where we do not fear those who are different, because the one thing we have learned is that our differences are illusory. Even better, they are opportunities to dig down to the deeper ways in which we are all the same.
I remember back in May when we held a North Fulton Interfaith Alliance event at St. David’s Episcopal Church. We brought together different people from different faith communities – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i – or no faith tradition, and spoke about our shared, common concerns in creating better community here in our North Fulton neighborhoods. It was a great afternoon.
After the event some women from a local Christian congregation said that we needed to keep doing these events, because, as they said, “we want to see people who don’t look like us.”
What they were also saying was that they wanted to be in community with people who don’t look like them, and learn that they are, however, still like them.
How would our world be different if we took those women’s invitation and applied it to our larger communities, our cities, our country, our world? Take a minute and imagine a world in which we were committed to lifting each other up.
Next, what if we build communities that accept and celebrate us, in which we have the courage to be ourselves, without judgment or fear of rejection. How about we build communities where we have the courage to be vulnerable.
The Courage To Be Vulnerable In Community
Many of you may be familiar with the work of Dr. Brené Brown, who has spent many years studying what makes individuals resilient. She tells an interesting story of how her research began. She describes it as an accident. As she was finishing her clinical education, she came to the conclusion that the element in our lives that gives us health and wholeness and joy is connection – connection to others, to a community, to a purpose. So she began to research the elements of connection, and she started asking people about valuable connections in their lives.
That’s not what she got back. As she spoke to her clinical subjects, she got story after story of a failure to connect, the desire to connect but an inability to do so, the deep and unfulfilled need her subjects had for relationships that they could not build.
Brown realized that so many of us cannot see a way to form these connections and as a result we remain isolated and in pain. We remain lonely, more and more of us. What is standing in our way? Through story after story, she learned that we cannot connect because we feel we are unworthy of love, that there is nowhere that we belong so we stop even trying.
She called this feeling shame, a term she has defined as the “intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” In order to deal with this feeling, we numb ourselves – with busyness, with consumerism, alcohol or drugs, food. Anything so that we don’t have to focus on how we feel, on our failure to meaningfully connect with others, or even more fully with ourselves.
Her research introduced her to people who had moved past this state of paralysis, which sounds a lot like the symptoms of loneliness we heard about in the beginning. She concluded that the characteristic that brought these men and women essentially back to life was the ability to be vulnerable. These are people who can deeply feel and openly express their feelings about the events of their lives without fear of judgment and without shame. The ability to be open without fear, is the wellspring of healing and resilience. It was also the capacity that enabled them to connect.
Indeed, she says, “They believe what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”
Dr. Brown has described vulnerability as “our most accurate measure of courage.” She notes that the word ‘courage’ comes from the word ‘cor’, the Latin for ’heart.’ One of the original meanings of the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” She says courage is “a heart word.”
Why is vulnerability so brave? Because we have to give up our silence and reach out. Are we willing to do that, to maintain connection, to develop trust? How scary is that – to let others see, to tell them who we are and how we feel? To open ourselves up as we are, with no guarantees and no safety net? To share our pain and our fears, and our joys, knowing that is the only way we can fully participate in our lives and the lives of others.
Author Wayne Mueller wrote:
We are called to be strong companions and clear mirrors to one another, to seek those who reflect with compassion and a keen eye how we are doing, whether we seem centered or off course . . . we need the nourishing company of others to create the circle needed for growth, freedom and healing.
It’s true that our communities are no longer handed to us. Instead, we have the opportunity and challenge to find, or create, our own loving and sustaining communities, locally and beyond. With awareness, creativity, and hope, let’s continue together to weave those lifelines of connection that bring us joy and meaning, and which will make our world a kinder and better place. What better task can we undertake?
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center