For as long as I can remember, I’ve been attracted to the margins—the places inhabited by the lost, the wanderers, and the disenfranchised. Growing up as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I became adept at revealing just enough of “me” to fit in to whatever community I desperately wanted to belong to. As an emotional chameleon, I was able to slide through my life on a superficial high, while deep inside I was uncoiled and disconnected.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sense of community and about where I belong. So much of our identity is enshrined in our community, so is it any wonder that when we subvert our “true” identity simply to satisfy our thirst for belonging, we sabotage any hope of actual connection? I can attest from my own experience how exhausting this can be, and how it is a fast track to depression, anxiety, and increasing isolation. It is said, “It takes a village to raise a child,” yet we are quick to dismiss the importance of that village once this child becomes an adult.
When I speak of “community”, I am not referring to the colloquial use of “neighborhood”, but rather to the feeling of belonging we receive through mutual identification at a deeper level with like-minded individuals. The most important communities in my life are at a collegial level, my friends in the running community, and at a more impassioned and emotive level, other addicts battling through addiction, and fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The danger of any community is that by its very nature, it can be prone to elitism and exclusion. In my mind, “real community” exists when individual differences are seen as “gifts”, and thus, are worthy of being born to light. Failure to embrace these differences breeds sects, divisiveness, and a destructive mentality of encampment.
Any discussion of community would be remiss without at least touching upon the philosophy of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier believes that at the heart of everyone lies the insatiable need for community, and belonging, which in turn validate our sense of worth. Founded in 1964, L’Arche is now an international federation dedicated to creating communities of caregivers and volunteers who work with and live along side people with developmental disabilities. In Canada alone, there are nearly 200 such settings. In the words of Jean Vanier, “One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
I am struck by the absolute beauty of Vanier’s belief that even when we are in distress, community can help us “find self-confidence and inner healing”. When I consider the importance of this word in my life, I envision three characteristics that I look for in a community.
1. Gravitation Towards Growth
An overriding sense of inclusion reminds us to have faith in the fact that we as a community share more similarities than differences. There is an acknowledgement of “space”, and the importance of allowing individuals, and the group itself, time to reflect, rejuvenate, and grow. Feeling safe to develop naturally combats our greatest fear—loneliness. Again, I would turn to the insight of Jean Vanier: “To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”
There is tacit acceptance that there will be a lot of overlap within our community, as all of us belong to diverse communities outside of this one. I believe the strongest communities are those whose mission is to question rather than to be enmeshed in confining dogma. Individuals ought to feel empowered to question others when something simply does not “sit right”. In a sense, pseudo-politeness can be viewed as an impediment to community wellbeing. In the same regard, unity is nurtured through a belief in the healing power of forgiveness.
By embracing vulnerability, there are no personal masks or protective armor. More than likely, it’s this very fact that accounts for why I’ve always been attracted to the margins of society. When we are weak and at our most vulnerable, it’s very difficult to muster the energy to maintain a protective veneer, and thus, I would argue this is when we are our most “authentic” selves.
I invite you to consider the role of community in your life, and to explore the elements that underlie this connection. Finally, I’ll leave you with some further words from Jean Vanier that I find particularly illuminating. “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of man is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.”