How to: Think About Community

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What does community mean to you?

It means a great deal of things to me; but before I get into that, let me start by sharing the top definitions from Merriam-Webster.

  1. a unified body of individuals
  2. a social state or condition, joint ownership or participation, common character, social activity
  3. society at large

Do these definitions enforce or change the way you think about this concept? For me, it's both. 

Personally, I've spent years thinking about this. More recently because the very word has been a part of professional job titles and descriptions; but prior to that, I gave much thought to it because I craved it above almost everything else. I wanted to belong. I wanted to be liked.

I won't go into too many details now, but I dealt with some intense anxiety attacks during my adolescent years. I wasn't totally confident with who I was, and I wasn't totally sure if "the world" liked me. I constantly felt like there was more I could do: to be a good friend, to be funny, to be charming. It was a game of popularity and achievement.

My thinking was "if I could just get this, then I'll be satisfied." Sometimes the thing would come to fruition, and sometimes it wouldn't. But, I was rarely satisfied. Honestly, I was paranoid, and I had FOMO before that was even a hashtag'd thing. The constant during this struggle was certainly the Lord but also my parents' praying for me and sitting at my bedside anytime the attacks struck.

Why do I tell you that? Well, I feel as though there's a "cultural moment" happening now. My viewpoint is that people feel all the more isolated at the very point when we have the most access to people (called "friends") than we've ever had before. 

Now, I'm not going to continue down a path of discussing the effects (positive or negative) of social media usage, but I do know it's made its mark on this conversation of community and belonging. 

This is shaping up to be a long post, so let's look at what we've established so far:

  1. The definition of community
  2. A bit of my personal story surrounding community
  3. The notion that the digital world has made an impact on community

Now, where do we go from here? Well, I believe it's important to unpack the practicalities of community: how it's formed and maintained. In fact, the pastor of my church preached on this a few weeks ago and broke down community into four parts: 1) proximity, 2) time, 3) commonality, and 4) vulnerability.

These four points have hit home for me, so I'll continue by unpacking a few thoughts around each one. 

PROXIMITY //

One of the hardest parts about living in New York is that I'm far away from my family. Sure, I've been able to form a "city family" of friends, but it still doesn't replace my "family family."

A benefit of social media is that I can still be a part of their lives and they, mine; but it's not an apples-to-apples comparison or replacement. I still long to be close to my family, and that means to be with them in person. I recognize this and then find ways to make it happen throughout the year. 

Similarly, it's nice to have "online friends" and to be able to keep up with people from past seasons, but that can't take the place of the close proximity we should have with people in the present season.

As an example, I had a really hard time mourning the end of my college community, well as I knew it during those four years on campus. That group of friends was special to me, and I initially doubted that I'd be able to find something similar while living in New York.

So, instead of trying, I hung on to any crumb of that past circle of friends that I could. Doing this made the first few months of life in New York more difficult. I longed to have close proximity with people, but I wasn't actively trying to find it.

Four years later, I'm very grateful for those college friendships that have remained, but I'm also grateful that we now have new people in our lives, who are supporting us with much closer proximity.

Bottom line: Community takes physical closeness. The digital world helps keep us connected, but it can't replace the actual connectedness of physical closeness.

Action item: Make a list of 5-7 people who have close proximity to your current life. (For the purpose of this exercise, don't include family members or college friends if you don't live in the same city as them.)

TIME //

How precious is time? In New York, it often seems to be king.

I don’t have time for that.

Maybe next month or quarter or year.

That’s above 14th Street? Yup, not gonna happen.

These are rather short statements, but they say a lot about how we value time and determine how to spend it. Sure, time is fleeting, and we shouldn't overextend ourselves, which could lead to burnout and/or a lot of very thin relationships. However, it's unlikely that things are always going to fit into our schedule exactly how we want them to.

It's also unlikely that true community will form after one meeting. It takes proximity as mentioned earlier, but it also takes recurring time within that proximity. Sacrificing precious time may be needed, and we might not get anything out of each individual meeting—but then again, community shouldn't be exclusively transactional. If it is, then things will start to crumble the minute one party stops (or isn't able to) maintain his/her end of the transaction.

Bottom line: Community takes time. Be patient with yourself, and be willing to sacrifice your time for another, even if something isn't offered in return.

Action item: Referencing the list mentioned above, look at each name, and answer this set of questions, "Why is (insert name) on this list? Is it because they might can offer me something (like favors, status, etc.) or simply because I like spending time with them?"

COMMONALITY //

Let's face it: there are some people who we get along with better than others, and often times, that's because of a common interest or experience.

Now, I'm not saying be mean to people who have different interests. Instead, we should strive to treat people with respect and learn about what makes them tick. Who knows: it's possible to find common ground with them along the way.

With this, it's easy to get so caught up in the "striving for deep relationships" that we miss out on the very commonality that could lead to that result. Maybe it's because we put commonality into a narrow box, focusing solely on outward characteristics?

Bottom line: Community is often formed through similar interests and experiences, and that's not a bad thing. However, don't overlook people, who might actually have commonality with you, even if it doesn't appear to be the case on the surface or from the initial meeting.

Action item: Go through your list again, and add the known commonalities you have with each person. Then, note where the overlaps exist. If people on your list, who have similar interests, don't know each other, then find a way for you to connect them; so you all can share that common interest or experience together. Bridge the gap! 

VULNERABILITY //

This is a tough one, but I feel it's the most important. If we long for honest and real community, then it requires us to be willing to be honest and real. 

Usually, we want to put our best foot forward and hide the things we like the least about ourselves. But, that's the strength of true community: being able to come as you are, knowing that the other people will care for you regardless. Sure, they may hold you accountable and help call you out on your stuff, but that doesn't mean that they're going to leave you. 

It's tough because it sounds so counter-intuitive. How can sharing the hardest parts about life be enjoyable, or make us likable? Honesty is attractive, and these things we share are often relatable.

Bottom line: Be honest with the people you call (or hope to call) friends, for it strengths the bond.

Action item: Looking back at your list, pick one person, who you feel the most comfortable to share your entire life story, and share it. If you trust them, then you can trust them with your mess. Hopefully, you'll be able to share this with everyone on the list, but start with one. 

Ultimately, I can't guarantee that community for you will always be easy. In fact, it's sure to be rocky from time to time; but to close, I feel that's the sign of true community: how the members of said community respond during those rocky times. And if you're looking for how to respond, then I'd say practice the four points listed above. While I mostly discussed them in terms of starting community, they're also great for maintaining and repairing it.