Defining Community

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Joanna Tebbs Young
Circles of Community

This past week one of my online students, Caleb, shared how he invites neighbors and friends over to Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, opening his doors and table to anyone who wishes to come. “Since most of my work colleagues are Christian, and in general my friends are of all spiritual stripes (or none),” he noted, “my table is very ecumenical.”

“What I have come to see is that these people, disparate as they are,” Caleb continued, “all come together and we co-create that community. Our commonality is not about identity or politics or religion, but about each other. We gather for each other, we break bread together, and we share our lives.”

The image he created sounded so inviting that I almost wished I lived on the other side of the country to share culinary and conversational delights around his table.

It is in small gatherings such as these where people of diverse backgrounds and experiences come together to share stories, talents and ideas, where friendships are forged, new connections made, and where movements toward creative positive change are conceived. These small, intimate community groups are the bedrock of larger community efforts seen around the country cleaning up neighborhoods, feeding the homeless, creating small- and large-scale community art projects, bringing books to young kids, starting music programs, storytelling events… the list goes on and on.

But as I responded to Caleb in the online class forum, I felt a stab of guilt. The reality is, I probably wouldn’t attend such a dinner if there were too many people there. The truth is, I, and my fellow introverts often find these kind of gatherings difficult. It’s not that we don’t like people; our brains are just structured in a way that we can get quickly overstimulated by being around too many people and things at once, and therefore get overwhelmed and tire more easily. For me, who also has a side dose of anxiety, even organizing such an event would be problematic, and for those with social anxiety, PTSD, or other issues triggered by large groups, the reactions are possibly more severe and serious. While not participating may seem selfish or anti-social, it’s actually self-preservation. (For those who gain their energy from being around lots of people and action, doing just that is self-preservation for them.) As the meme says: “Introverts Unite! Separately. In our own homes.”

Memes aside, it did occur to me to ponder: How do the less social feel connected? How does someone who loves their community and wants the best for it and its citizens, but who feels more comfortable at home, help foster community? Someone who, not from a lack of concern, support, or love of the community, rarely attends or helps with events put on by various organizations? Someone who prefers talking one-on-one or to a few interesting people rather than in a group, is re-energized by quietly reading in a favorite chair at home rather than out at a party, large gathering, or at a bar, or creating art alone rather than assisting in the production of a community project? And what about those who physically or emotionally have no choice but to stay home?

Of course, there are churches, organizations, schools and places of work which can serve as self-contained communities, or ones that do outreach beyond their doors. Such ties can help even the shyest members participate if they are given a specific role to play (as long as I don’t have to mingle or do small-talk, I’m generally good!). But what about those who, for a variety of reasons, don’t belong to such organizations?

I write about this not because I have the answers, because I don’t. For me, it actually raises more questions: Is “community” only something that is created in large groups and events? How can those who prefer to interact one-on-one or in small groups feel part of a wider community such as our own active city? How can everyone feel a sense of belonging, even while sitting in their own home?

I think an answer may lie with early 19th century psychotherapist, Alfred Adler. To belong is a basic human need and Adler believed this was achieved through the Four Cs: Connect, Count, Capable, Courage. In other words, when one has connections with others, feel they count, i.e. are valued, know they are capable of doing something, and are encouraged to do it, their sense of belonging is fulfilled.

I believe, therefore, it is looking for and providing opportunities for people of all stripes and abilities to shine in the way they are most comfortable, able and skilled. For me, this means generally staying behind the scenes doing what I do best: writing and teaching (and occasionally bringing my work to the coffee shop where chats with acquaintances are inevitable and enjoyable). For others, it may be creating scenery for the local theatre group, building and maintaining a website for a local nonprofit, or knitting hats and mittens for a holiday mitten tree. For someone else, it may be sharing their expertise, support or story via the internet.

So, how do we include everyone who wants to contribute and belong but doesn’t have the wherewithal, ability or opportunity to do so? I don’t have a good answer to that. But I do know that dialogue is always a good place to start. Asking questions and truly listening to the response is the first step towards personal connection. It’s how creative sparks and ideas come to light.

It’s Thanksgiving, and many people will be gathering with family, friends or neighbors over a meal. A perfect time for a conversation? (Before the introverts in the group go off to read by the fire, that is.)

Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA

Joanna Tebbs Young is a freelance writer, author, and expressive writing coach living in Rutland. Email her at joanna@wisdomwithinink.com.

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