We waft and wander
in search of community —
lighthouse for lost souls.
Community. I’d like to take a stab at clarifying and redefining how I think about this word and what it means to me, as it has come up in conversations with increasing regularity. Just as bell hooks proposed we shift our understanding of love from the viewpoint of a noun to a verb, I’d like to propose we extend this perspective to the concept of community, to approach it as a verb, or set of verbs, rather than a noun.
Within the word community itself lies the word commune. As a noun, commune means “a group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities;” as a verb, it means “to share one’s intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone), especially on a spiritual level.”
The etymology of the word community comes from the Latin communis, meaning “common, public, shared by all or many.” Language is like the warp and weft of a loom, its meanings woven out of the changing landscape of the larger fabric of culture itself.
When I strip community down to its bare essentials, three threads remain: people, place, and commonality (by which I mean a shared sense of purpose, interests, values, activities, challenges, or belief systems). Too often in my conversations about community, emphasis is placed on people or commonality. But the emergence of community necessitates the coming together of a group of people, who gather in a place (whether in person or virtually), at regular, frequent-enough intervals.
Historically speaking, place was a given and was taken for granted, as people were generally constrained to staying in one place for most of their lives, but this is not the case in modernity. People and place compose the necessary humus for commonality to emerge. Not enough emphasis is given to place when we talk about community in the 21st century. It often gets overlooked and dismissed in its contribution to the livelihood and longevity of a vital community.
These three components — people, place, commonality — are the three beams of a self-supporting, reciprocal roof, each carrying equal weight. If one is weakened, the entire structure is weakened. Each gives rise, and support, to the other. When we shift our understanding of community from the viewpoint of a noun to a verb, another set of self-supporting beams emerge — three core and continuous actions that lead to the creation and preservation of community: committing, practicing, and reciprocating.
One of the great detriments to our desire for community, at present, is our unwillingness and inability to commit. So many of us seek community, and yet are afraid to commit to it fully. In the age of unlimited optionality and possibilities, we live with a fear of commitment — of being tied down should something more intriguing or opportune present itself. We find it difficult to commit to plans, to partners, and perhaps most importantly, to place. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with friends in recent years where the simple and yet monumental decision of where to live is met with so much paralyzing apprehension and uncertainty. It is, of course, a privileged position to be in, to be able to have so much choice around where one lives, and yet, I believe it is the core culprit to not just a lack of community, but to weakened communal-ties.
In Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, the book that inspired this post, author Toko-pa Turner asks:
“How can we belong ourselves to a place, a community, or even a craft unless we stay put long enough to become bonded with it? Similarly, how can others belong themselves to us unless we prove the fabric of our friendship sturdy enough to be the warp to the other’s weft? Staying put requires commitment and accountability, qualities which make the nomadic heart shiver with dread” (p. 155).
She makes the case that staying put (committing to something) is a fundamental capacity for belonging, and belonging is at the heart of what we’re seeking in our search for community.
To commit is both an internal and external act. It shifts the way we approach others as well as the way others approach us. While I am all about growing our capacity to sit in the unknown and in uncertainty, I also know that it is physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing to do so. It exerts a lot of energy, for most of us, to not know. Anyone who has ever felt the pain of indecisiveness knows that — from as simple of a decision as what to eat or which toothpaste to buy, to as big of a decision as where to live or whether or not to take a job offer — deciding uses up physical, mental, and emotional reserves. It’s no wonder that so many successful people eliminate the need to make small-scale decisions such as what to wear and eat by committing to a specific outfit (i.e. Steve Job’s black turtleneck and Obama’s suits), restaurant, or diet, so that they can channel their energy towards what they care about most. These acts of commitment — however big or small — also help other people to know who we are, what we stand for, and to more easily relate to us. It is in this sort of constancy and consistency that trust can be established.
In not committing to a place, which has been the case for Jeff Nobbs and I whenever friends ask: “Do you think you’ll stay in the Bay Area for awhile?” or “Where do you think you’ll be in five years?” we self-impose an immense emotional and cognitive load by wafting back and forth in indecisiveness. One of my life principles is the belief that there is freedom to be found in commitment, and I have certainly found this to be true in love and life. Many of us want love, connection, and intimacy, but are unwilling or afraid to commit to relationships that may give us that. Community is no different. Just as meaningful relationships require us to commit to a person or person(s), a meaningful community asks us firstly to commit to place. The act of committing to a place shifts my mindset and the ways in which I approach the land, the relationships, and the communities within it. In committing to the Bay Area for the indefinite future, I can feel my antennas animate and sharpen in their search for others who have made the same commitment. This is the basis for community.
When I participate in a community or engage in relationships with a short-term, non-committal mindset, I may withhold parts of myself and and not give my all to the community or the relationship(s). While some may argue that it is precisely the impermanent and non-committal nature of a community or relationship that gives them the courage and freedom to bring their full selves and put their best foot forward, that they are able to commit more fully because of it, I believe the goodwill and strength of communities ultimately depend on its members’ long-term commitments. A commitment is as much about duration as it is about intensity.
Further, I’d like to draw out the difference between being in a community and being a part of a community. It’s a subtle distinction. In the former, the individual still sees themselves as separate from community, as a contributor, but a dispensable one (which is how we’re conditioned to think in our profit- and productivity- driven capitalistic culture). In the latter, there is union between self and community — a lack of separation — and an understanding of the interdependency between the whole (the community) and its parts (the members).
In essence, a community (the whole) is comprised of many configurations of interpersonal relationships between its members (the parts), and more importantly, the relationship between any given member and the community as a whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, community is the sum of all present and potential relationship configurations that exist within it, and is only as strong as its weakest link(s). If there are parts of the community who waver in their commitment to the greater whole, the likelihood of the whole falling apart is great. Community thrives on commitment and constancy.
Community — as a sum configuration of many intersecting relationships — operates like any other relationship in that we get out what we put in. There seems to be a growing trend in modern relationships, partly due to the increase in optionality and thus opportunities, to bail when the going gets tough, or boring. The moment there’s a rupture or series of ruptures, the moment something starts to feel off, dull, or lackluster, we leave. There’s plenty else out there to excite and enliven us, why waste our time? Of course, we may, at some point or another, grow out of, or apart from, a place, community or relationship, but I believe we often leave too soon and too quickly.* This trend has been further exacerbated by the current pandemic, as seen by the flight of the privileged to greener pastures.
*Please note I am not referring to abusive or toxic relationships or communities here.
In the startup world, there’s this notion that when you don’t believe you can go any further, when you think you’ve reached absolute failure, is when you’ve reached the blind corner of success. We could also remind ourselves of the old aphorism: it’s darkest before the dawn. It is only through our unwavering commitment to community, to working through the inevitable troughs and plateaus, that something true and lasting emerges. I believe this kind of commitment and devotion is contagious and an attractor in a culture and society starved of connection and lasting communion.
By committing to place, the fecund soil from which community sprouts, we take our first step towards building community. Committing is a choice. It is a choice we make every moment of every day. It is only once I’ve chosen to commit — to a place, a group of people, a common purpose — that I can move towards the art of practicing and reciprocating.
I have expressed my understanding of community as consisting of three threads: place, people, and commonality, of which place is rarely emphasized. I have also suggested we shift our thinking about community from a noun to a set of verbs, of which there are three: committing, practicing, and reciprocating. We could think of community as the committed practice of reciprocity. How does one build and preserve community? Through the committed practice of reciprocity. This definition of community allows for fluidity and spaciousness, for continuous movement, which is the basis of all life.
As I’ve focused mostly on to commit so far, allow me to elaborate on what I mean by the other two verbs— to practice and to reciprocate. Each is an art of living that is dying in a sociocultural landscape that venerates convenience, efficiency, and self-sufficiency. I hope it’s not too much of an imposition to suggest that many of us no longer know how to be a part of a community. That muscle has atrophied in urban centers where rather than turning towards neighbors, friends, or family to fill a lack or need, we turn towards the countless products and services available at our beck-and-call.
When I treat community as a continual, ongoing practice, I cannot take it for granted. I go into it with intentionality, receptivity and humility, knowing I, and others, won’t be very good at it at first. I may overstep, under-contribute, and push up against boundaries. But in knowing this is a practice, I give myself and others the benefit of the doubt, and plenty of spaciousness to breathe, learn, fumble, and grow. Commitment and practice go hand-in-hand; without one, the other cannot hold. By approaching community as a practice, I no longer expect “perfect,” which, of course, does not exist. I aim for “good enough,” with the empathic understanding that mishaps, misattunements, and ruptures are inevitable and normal, but in our committed practice to one another and to the greater whole, we do what we can to support, repair, and strengthen ruptured relations or weakened communal-ties. In committed practice, I accept that a community is fluid and in constant motion — shifting, changing, molding, and being molded by us. It is a space of continuous emergence.
To reciprocate, essentially means to balance the art of giving and the art of receiving. Many, if not most of us, find ourselves challenged by one more than the other. I don’t believe that we can truly feel like we are a part of a community, that we belong, until we are able to give as well as we receive, and able to receive as well as we give.
I’d like to revisit something I touched on earlier — the subtle distinction between being in a community and being a part of a community — where I distinguished the former as one engaging peripherally, remaining separate, apart from, and the latter as merged, integrated, a part of. This is relevant to reciprocity, because true reciprocity — whether with a place, person, or thing — can only occur when one is a part of. Reciprocity must come from within, and asks of us to commit and get to know a place, person, or thing, from the inside out.
To give and to receive necessitates that I show up and make myself available, receptive, and humble to what the community needs and the gifts it has to offer. In Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kimmerer quotes Lewis Hyde in his description of reciprocity with nature:
“A gift relationship with nature is a ‘formal give-and-take that acknowledges our participation in, and dependence upon, natural increase. We tend to respond to nature as a part of ourselves, not a stranger or alien available for exploitation.’” (p. 30, bolding mine).
I believe this same principle applies to community. In a society that deifies independence and self-reliance, it takes great commitment and practice to re-learn how to participate in reciprocity and depend upon one another. Much of the depletion and deprivation of natural resources in our country and planet may be rooted in a spiritual crisis of independence, isolation, and un-belonging — of having been physically exiled or divorced from our ancestral lands and communities — and a desperate longing to belong, to salve the emptiness and loneliness of a deep soul wound.
If we enter into community as an an other, as a stranger or alien, we will unwittingly project our superiority and impose judgements of what’s “good” onto it. This is not reciprocity. Reciprocity is born out of a response to community as a part of ourselves and of ourselves as a part of it, and only from that place can we offer our gifts from a place of wholeness rather than lack, can we graciously receive because we know we are worthy, because we know that in this exchange, all — the whole and its parts — benefit and are uplifted. We each have gifts, whether in being or doing, but it is only when we are able to trust in and value our inherent wholeness that we can truly be in community. Whether our gifts be an ability to organize, to problem-solve, to create a complex Excel spreadsheet, or to be present, to nurture, to bring a sense of lightness and vitality to a group — the more of ourselves we bring into community, the more we receive. The more we open our hearts to receive, the more wholesome our offerings.
Here’s to community, a lighthouse for lost souls. We take our first step towards home when we commit to a place, from which a continuous and committed practice of reciprocity to a group of people with a shared sense of purpose may be fostered. Here’s to coming home.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass. First edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions
Turner, T. (2017). Belonging: remembering ourselves home. First edition. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia: Her Own Room Press