02/20/09 Ukiah, California
In Part 1 of my discussion of community I stated pretty clearly that I do not believe we live in one. I suggested that a community may not be something that can be defined any more than any other principle, or ideal, and could be viewed as a process, or self-organizing system. We all have our own definition of what community is and I recognize I am no different; my definition is just that, my definition. This is also the point; if we each have a different definition of what a community is then do we really know what a “community” is? If community appears differently to each of us, how do we recognize when we are in one? Do we carry it around with us as a personal viewpoint, or, is it the average of all our viewpoints? In this offering I will attempt to bring additional information and insight into the discussion of community.
To me, a community is more than a given area on a map, or political boundary, such as a supervisorial district, neighborhood, or county, and the people who live within it. I believe this is the general way people think about community, an area and its people, but when they use it in their speech I think they are referring to those who agree with their views and opinions; what I would call cliques and special interest groups. For me, community is relationships. The health of relationships is dependent upon the health of the people having them. Living in a society where depression is the most common condition among its population, where one-in-four citizens have a significant mental disorder, where teenage suicide is at an unprecedented high and political ethics are at an all time low, where business is ruthless on the people, where the poor, homeless and disadvantaged youth are the first to be sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed and excess, I see little of healthy relationships.
Another question that needs to be asked is: Can an authentic sustainable community be created in an inauthentic and non-sustainable society? We live by the rules society establishes, by its values, norms, beliefs and structures. If our national policy is unsustainable, cruel, unjust, materially focused and enforced with guns, or prison, is it not treasonous to change that policy? If we need to resort to treason in order to create, or desire to create, a healthy, sustainable, safe, just, and economically equal community, we cannot look to our civil leadership for help. Their job is to maintain the economic and political power structure because their jobs, life styles, insurance policies and material wealth depend upon its continuing. This is why it is so hard to get good, meaningful, work done toward a sustainable future; there is too much money to made being unsustainable. Given the steady diet of tragedy, distress, job losses, housing foreclosures, war, pollution and human suffering, how can we and our “community” not be affected? All of us, consciously, or unconsciously, feel the pain and suffering of the collective human whole, of other species, and, I believe, of Earth Herself. We cannot escape it; we are all connected.
Reading between the lines in many articles about community, local or otherwise, one will find the mistrust, pettiness, aggression, personal agendas, polarization, separateness, power plays and division that has plagued “community” and defined our leaders for centuries. The separation can be traced back to Sir Isaac Newton (mechanistic worldview) and Rene Descartes (separation of body and mind), the result of a reductionist, separatist, disconnected, mechanical, earth-is-dead, social and scientific structure. However, the aggression, power plays and pettiness come from other sources. Building authentic community requires overcoming the separation, polarization and fear that is demanded by the industrial growth society and embedded within our psyche, beliefs, religions and way of life. I believe we must reclaim our identity as “citizens of the world”, rejecting the mantel of “consumer”, we must recognize that each of us is necessary and integral to our collective success, or, failure. In other words, we must recognize our own and each other’s gifts and potentials in order to harvest the power of relationship and to focus it collectively for the enhancement of all.
Like any person with any serious illness such as cancer, or substance addiction, one has to admit they have a problem before they can begin to think about a cure. This seems to be the largest obstacle in personal growth, or overcoming addiction and where the greatest resistance is usually found. In her book, “On Death and Dying”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identifies five stages of emotional response that people experience when dealing with a terminal illness. They are: Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. In their article for HopeDance Magazine entitled, “The Waking Up Syndrome” Sarah Edwards and Linda Buzzel identify six stages of emotional response people experience while awakening to the magnitude of the current world conditions. They are: denial, semi-consciousness, the moment of realization, the point of no return, despair/guilt/hopelessness, and acceptance/empowerment/action. I believe all these stages apply, to a greater or lesser degree, with anything that threatens our belief systems, social status, economic status, or, ability to feel in control of our lives, not just while confronting death. For some, accepting that we do not live in an authentic community may be traumatic, a little death, yet in order to build a sustainable county (society) we need to go through denial to reach anger and anger to reach bargaining, then depression and then acceptance. After supporting each other into acceptance we can continue to work collectively to heal our social body and build the society we desire.
Gratitude is essential in this process. It gives us the strength and courage, the presence, to go into our pain and disillusionments, to feel and speak our truth, to witness another’s pain and hear their truth. Gratitude for life, for the sunshine, the earth, for beauty and sorrow, joy and pain, is the ground from which strength and meaning arise and is one of the most powerful things we can feel. If we have gratitude as our foundation we can go into the denial, isolation, anger and other emotional stages, give them their due diligence, honor the message they contain and come out the other side with broadened perspective and increased ability for compassion. Gratitude is subversive in that it removes the Industrial Growth Society’s ability to control and manipulate us. When we are deeply rooted in gratitude and full of the joy of existence we are fulfilled in the moment and do not need the baubles of commercialism in order to feel whole, connected, worthwhile, or abundant. Gratitude is not dependent upon external circumstances and we can shift into gratitude at any moment we choose. Gratitude is a powerful, non-lethal weapon that can be used any time tragedy, or human injustice occurs. It eases our hearts and has the ability to heal a great many wounds.
As a compassionate person I cannot look at the homeless, abandoned youth, and mentally ill in Ukiah without also sensing the world’s refugees, abandoned youth and suffering multitudes. Becoming aware of the magnitude of the challenges facing human survival and the concurrent suffering is a double edged sword; we gain in consciousness, but it is painful. There is no “going back” once the heart breaks. The problems we experience in our neighborhoods are the problems we face in the world. Quoting from Joanna Macy’s book, “Coming Back to Life”, co-written with Molly Brown; “What we are dealing with here is akin to the original meaning of compassion: “suffering with”. It is the distress we feel on behalf of the larger whole of which we are a part. It is the pain of the world itself, experienced in each of us.” To sit with and honor our pain opens our hearts, awakening, or deepening, the compassion already residing within us. To witness another’s pain and to honor them opens us up to the resiliency and capacity of the human soul. We begin to see our own story, our pain, our triumphs, and our fear, reflected to us in the stories of others. We identify with their life struggle, we begin to see their struggle as our own, and we see the hidden talents in them we so easily overlook in ourselves. Joanna calls this, the opening of our Bodhisattva heart. One’s ability “to suffer with” another is critical for authentic relationships and society. Without compassion we loose sight of the sacredness of life and in shutting off our ability to feel pain we shut off our capacity to feel at all. We become numb.
Being grounded in gratitude and willing to honor our pain opens us up to new ways of seeing ourselves and our place in Creation. With this expanded perspective we get to see how big we really are; how capable, creative; in fact, how ingenious and inspirational the human critter is. We begin to estimate the breadth of human potential, the resiliency, courage and knowledge embedded into the human organism. We rediscover our connection to all other living beings, our deep ecology, our history with life on planet Earth. With this knowledge we move forward into passionate, enlivened, connected and inspirational action. We can take the new strength, insights and abilities into our chosen fields of work knowing our actions are informed, in line with a higher purpose, and integral for healthy communities and continued human life on Earth. Knowing that one only need do what one can; that it takes all our talents working together and no single person, or group, is responsible to solve all the problems we face. This frees us up to take on what we can with zeal and enthusiasm and trust that others are doing the same. We can develop the new models and methods of peace and equality marking the turning away from the destructive paradigms of the past and toward a sustainable, life honoring future. Our communities become a reflection of the authentic relationships we develop, of the inclusiveness of the citizens, and the health of the natural environment we are all dependent upon. Having honest, meaningful, relationships while experiencing positive changes in our lives and neighborhoods, we can abide once again in gratitude to rest and recharge.
Without healthy communal relationships we will never have a healthy society. As a facilitator for Joanna Macy’s, the “Work That Reconnects” I am attempting to bring this information and activities into building authentic community in Ukiah. By setting aside time to work together and exploring our inner truths we rediscover our interconnectedness to all of life as well as the courage, strength and a deeper sense of community. Joanna says, “The central purpose of the Work That Reconnects is to help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with the systemic, self-healing powers in the web of life, so that they may be enlivened and motivated to play their part in creating a sustainable world.” Setting specific times to work together as a group has several benefits (besides creating time and space for the work); it provides focus and duration; the members provide support for other in the group; it creates a safety container for raw emotions; it creates synergy; and it provides momentum for action. Some of the outcomes include better interpersonal communication skills, better conflict resolution skills, less stress, increased tolerance for others, and more authentic relationships; in effect, healthier lives.
In summary, community is relationships as much as it is people, places and things. Its health depends upon the health of all of its parts and each part affects the whole. If we cannot see the worth in ourselves and in each other, if we cannot accept our differences and concentrate on our similarities, if we cannot overcome the separation within ourselves and from nature, if we do not develop compassion for future generations; if we can’t share our joy or our pain, and see the beauty and potential within humanity, we will fail in making the turn from a life destroying society to a life honoring one. The foundation on which all of our social, environmental and spiritual work is built must consist of trust, honesty, integrity, compassion and wisdom, without it our efforts are for naught. We remain a collection of cliques and special interest groups striving for power. Does anyone want to do the real work?
I’m ready, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Let’s connect and set a time and place. We can invite the “community”.
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons