Belonging to a community is essential to the well-being of all individuals. Without community one is at risk of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dis-ease. In my mind, the goal of a healthy community is to work in collaboration with its members for the betterment of the whole. A community holds the essential power to recognize and confirm one’s unique gifts, be witness to the trials and tribulations of the lives of its members, and encourage one to fulfill their life’s purpose. Throughout one’s life it is hopeful that one will find belonging and community in many different forms, at different stages in life, and through different venues. At least this is what my own lived experience has taught me. Making sense of my life isn’t even possible outside the context of community. So sharing my evolving wisdom based on my unique experiences of community is what I’d like to share.
Community in Childhood
Our biological families, if we are lucky enough to remain with them, are our first opportunity for realizing our sense of belonging and lay the foundation for the way we enter into relationships with others. Ideally, our family provides an affirming and supportive community.
For some it is believed that before we are born we select our parents, giving us some control over where our earthly forms are introduced. Our families are our first clan. Their lasting impact on us perhaps greater than any community we choose later in our lives. They have the opportunity to establish a foundation in which we recognize our unconditional belonging to a community, cultivate our ability to form healthy attachments to others, and promote us in our fulfillment of our personal purpose.
I may be a bit biased, but I believe that I chose an ideal family as my first clan. Above anything else I am secure in my sense of belonging to my biological clan, and they are no small clan, nor do they live their lives isolated from one another. I feel fortunate to be part of a family with four living generations that have regular access to each other.
In some indigenous cultures the importance of belonging is well known. So well known that infants are born in the presence of the other children in the community and the first screams of the newborn are met by the returning screams of the children, welcoming them home, so as to let them know they have arrived into their community and that they are not alone.
This is a stark contrast to the arrival of babies in Western culture; the sterile hospital, florescent lights, humming medical equipment, barely acquainted doctor, the father and perhaps another close family member or two. Unfortunately, often times this environment of acquaintances, rigid structures, and superficial discussions of the baby’s possible gender or name carry on throughout infancy, discouraging the sense of unconditional belonging and contribution as the babies are seen as weak and vulnerable, only requiring their needs to be met by others and having nothing to offer in return, until they reach a mature age.
Though I’m not entirely sure my cousins were allowed to return my screams in the delivery room, my biological clan found their own way of affirming me and offering the foundation of unconditional belonging that I know to be vital.
Community in Grade School
As one begins to branch out and attend primary school, our community gets the opportunity to grow. As we enter into school, our community includes more individuals outside our biological clan and more individuals with less diversity of ages. Our selection of community largely depends on who lives in our neighborhood or who participates in the same activities at recess.
I attended a school outside my neighborhood so my school community was very different than my neighborhood community. I was forced to find belonging to multiple clans to meet my need for inclusion at home and at school. These clans looked very different. At school I traveled with a coed group of youth almost exclusively in the same grade, all standout athletes, all of which lived within blocks of each other and our school. Because I lived in a different neighborhood and my ability to travel was restricted due to my age, there were times that I felt excluded from this school clan, as they often spent their afternoons together strengthening their bonds, engaging in extra curricular activities, and increasing their sense of belonging. They also were fortunate enough to continue onto middle school and high school together as they all resided in the same neighborhood. Thanks to Facebook, today I am still aware of their connection and regular presence in each other’s lives, however, I am no longer intimate with their clan.
As for my neighborhood clan, we looked much different. We were a collection of individuals forced into each other’s lives based on proximity of our housing. It was mostly boys in the neighborhood except my sister and I, and we encompassed a greater range of ages, which never seemed to be an issue. The strength of my individual relationships in this community varied greatly as well. In particular, I was especially close with the Low Family. I spent many weekends with them at their family cabin, sometimes with my family as well, but not always. My connection to them today remains strong and intact. My sense of belonging with them continues to feel unconditional.
Community in High School
High school can be a difficult time for many. As adolescents begin further exploring identity and individuating, their greater mobility, and varying interests, seem to encourage the development of smaller, intimate groups. This was at least the case for me. I think I landed on the more naïve and perhaps immature side of the high school spectrum. While others found increased interest in romantic relationships, dabbling in adult activities such as drinking, and slowed down their physical movements, preferring to hang out rather than get together and do something, I was still more interested in exploring nature and running around the soccer field. Although I knew many teens and was known and well-liked by many, I was, and am, left with one remaining truly unconditional community member from high school, Emily. Her friendship and belonging have tested the tides of time, distance, different lifestyles and religion. Our relationship and connection have remained whole-hearted.
It is during adolescence that the lack of community and sense of belonging can have a most painful impact. For those that long to fit in without the ability or desire to compromise their individuality, this can be an especially difficult undertaking. Such was the case with a youth that I worked, who I will refer to as “Caleb.”
At the center of Caleb’s agony was a lack of authentic belonging. He didn’t feel whole-heartedly accepted in all his uniqueness and was hopeless about the idea of being loved. As professionals, we were limited in our ability to offer the kind of community he needed to fill those chasms of loneliness and isolation. Ultimately, the pain and hopelessness overtook him. Unable to bear the thought of never finding belonging, despite reassurance that while his original clan may not have been able to provide what he needed, that it would get better, we couldn’t save him.
Community in Adulthood
Since high school, I have been blessed with inclusion in two authentic communities. The first perhaps a bit less mature than the current one, but nonetheless fitting of my definition of community.
While living in Lake Tahoe I was forced and blessed to live with several housemates. Tahoe attracts a certain type of person; young, adventurous, extreme, hard-working and ‘harder-playing’; my phrase for someone who plays even harder than they work. There is not a plethora of employment opportunities nor do the existing jobs pay very well, so finding a solid group of people that you’re willing to live with and share expenses with became essential. I was most fortunate to find such a group; one that quickly blossomed into a healthy community. We must have all had a similar purpose at that stage of our lives; to push the limits of our physical bodies, not be restrained by elements of nature (or law for that matter), bring to reality our wildest ideas, and survive with some radical stories to tell. To satisfy these purposes required us to recognize and affirm the variety of unique gifts each of us brought to the group. My buddy Lane was the one capable of bringing a thought or sketch to physical form. Chad was the one willing to risk his body for the test run. Jared provided encouragement and the constant reminder that what we were doing may be considered a “Darwin Moment.” I was the occasional voice of reason, but most often the front man when confronted by outsiders. I also managed the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, nurturing when the inevitable injuries occurred; keeping of work schedules, paying rent, you know, the “responsible” things. However, our community wasn’t the individualized responsibilities of each of us but the recognition of our interdependence on each other, the support in bringing our gifts to the clan, and the authentic and whole-hearted witnessing of the trials and tribulations of our members.
The second community of my adult life is still fully intact today, and is one that took a tragedy to bring to my awareness. In 2014, the unfathomable happened; members of my community lost their 10-week-old son, Ollie. His mother was grief-stricken and we were determined to not allow her to hide. We gathered our resources, our individual gifts, and built a metaphorical cocoon surrounding her, each contributing our best selves. Some were tasked with helping her bathe, another with communicating with her employer, another with the coroner, someone to organize the bringing of food, someone to care for and nurture her surviving two year-old son in order to provide his mother the needed space to be uninhibited in her grief. It was in the wake of this tragedy that I fully recognized the power and necessity to have one’s grief witnessed by their community for the sake of true healing and the undeniable realization that we are healthiest when our interdependence on one another can be acknowledged.
Through my own experiences of community and feelings of belonging, as well as witnessing the pain of those unable to find it, I have come to recognize the essentialness of a safe place to seek support in healing, to bring and share my unique gifts, and be reminded of my purpose in life. An expert in both ritual and community, writer Malidoma Somé says it so well when he wonders, “What would it be like if that intensity of human connection could be found here, in addition to all of the material wealth that is available? If the human wealth could match the material wealth, what would happen? Heaven could be created right here” (Somé 1999).
Somé, Malidoma. 1999. The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc.
© 2015 Elizabeth Barone