I’m still reading Malidoma Some’s excellent book, “The Healing Wisdom of Africa”. It’s got so many great insights into community– and the isolation experienced by so many in the West.
One key insight is that a community is created and made strong by EMOTIONAL connection. Sharing emotion is absolutely key, according to Malidoma. He explains that without shared emotion, the community quickly dies.
Malidoma therefore finds fault with many of our “rituals” in the West (which he calls “ceremonies”, not rituals)… because he feels that our “rituals” tend to be overly scripted, lack spontanaity, and lack strong emotion. By contrast, the rituals of his African village are designed to elicit strong emotion within a community context.
I think Malidoma is right– and it explains to me one of the key obstacles to community in the West. In my efforts to connect with a community, I have joined many groups, clubs, and organizations. These are usually centered around a shared interest– some kind of artistic, athletic, cultural, or artistic interest shared by the whole group.
In the West, we think this is enough to create a community, but clearly it’s not. I have found it extremely difficult to make meaningful friendships at these club meetings… and I know I’m not unique.
The reason, I believe, is that there is absolutely no emotional connection within these groups. While great for “networking”, they are devoid of deeper purpose or meaning.
And so, as community leaders we must find more compelling, emotional purposes for our group. We must take on not only a particular topic of interest, but the deeper cultivation of each individual’s genius and heart.
We must remember that the practical REASON for the group is not at all the same as the much deeper PURPOSE… and we must focus most of our energies on the latter.
One thing is clear to me– great communities don’t happen by accident. They are formed by strong leaders with vision and purpose.
The greatest community I ever belonged to was the community of Bryn Madoc in Athens, GA. I look on my ~7 years with them as a golden age in terms of being part of a connected, purposeful, creative community.
I’ve been thinking about them a lot recently. What made this community so special? What makes any community strong?
I don’t have all the answers, but Madoc gives me some clues:
1. Several Committed Leaders
Bryn Madoc had not just one, but several strong and committed leaders. They all shared a vision of inclusiveness and teamwork. The leaders acted as strong mentors to younger members (like myself). They articulated a clear vision– and more importantly, they embodied it.
2. Shared Purpose
The community of Madoc cultivated a sense of shared purpose. While each individual’s talents were nurtured, there was always a sense of creating together. The group’s leaders held frequent workshops– mostly informal. They also hosted frequent parties and social events. Most importantly, the group hosted 2 or more large events every year– during which we played host to attendees from other groups. Hosting events gave the smaller workshops and practices a larger purpose.
3. Loose-Tight Structure
As I mentioned, these kinds of communities don’t just happen. They are created and cultivated. Bryn Madoc had structure– there were officers, meetings, planned events, awards, and rituals. These rituals created a sense of meaning and focused the efforts of the members. At the same time, the structure was very flexible. Eccentricity and individuality were not only tolerated, they were strongly encouraged. The group was a sanctuary for any and all creative talents.
So there we have a few key community principles: Structure, Purpose, and Leadership. Each of these, I believe, must be cultivated consciously and with great energy. They cannot be taken for granted.
The simple truth is that modern Western life conspires to isolate us. If we just “go with the flow”, our existing communities will naturally break apart. The forces of entropy are strong in our culture– community goes against this.
This is why so many of us find it difficult to find, create, maintain, and grow a vibrant community. I have complained about this difficulty for years. I’ve cursed it as I watched wonderful communities slowly fall apart. I’ve bemoaned their fate, and mine.
But what good does this do?
I recently saw the Dalai Lama speak at UC Berkeley. He was as playful and humourous as ever.. and as wise. In all his talk, one statement really stuck out to me. Someone asked him for general life advice and he said (to paraphrase), “The best advice for life is not to expect it to be easy. It’s not going to be easy. Just accept that and value growth, not ease”.
That’s an excellent stand to take in regards to our lonely isolated Western life. Communities are extremely difficult to build, maintain, and grow in our society. Yes, it’s very tough. Yes, the forces of work and economics conspire against it. Yes, the chronic busy-ness and consumer distractions work to erode the strength of our connections.
All true, but so what. If human love and connection really are most important to us, we’ve got to fight for them. We’ve got to make tough choices. We’ve got to devote our energy and passion to the cause. We have to accept that it will be a tough fight, and will always be a tough fight, and do it anyway.
Because when dear friends die, and we feel our own mortality creeping in– it is the people in our community we instinctively value most. That’s when we gain clarity.
Our simple task is to seize the opportunity offered by the clarity, and take massive action!
That, at least, is the challenge I’m giving myself.
“People of great material deprivation, the very thing that the West is trying to avoid, find themselves loaded with the power to give more than those who have great material wealth. The best they can give, all that they can give, is themselves. Every Westerner who visits my village leaves with one thing, and that is the experience of the intensity of human connection and attention. An awareness of the intensity of human connection is what visitors take away. This is what makes them long to return again, because that is what they don’t get here in the West”
— Malidoma Some (From “The Healing Wisdom of Africa”)
Community has been on my mind for some time. Now that I’ve achieved a level of financial freedom, I find that community is what I yearn for most of all. And I find that I’m not alone.
Every where I go, every American I meet- I find people who feel isolated. People are cut off from their extended families. They are cut off from their closest friends.
Everyone is busy– busy with the distractions of consumerism… and the immense amount of work required to maintain those distractions.
This weekend, I was reminded just how important community is. I went to a memorial service for an old friend,.. and re-connected there with the finest community I have ever belonged to. Tremendous nostalgia gripped me. A flood of memories.
And only now, more than 15 years later, do I realize how much the people of Bryn Madoc gave me– how they supported me, taught me, encouraged me, accepted me. And not just me– many others.
Since leaving, I have never found a finer group of people, nor a stronger community. I found myself filled with gratitude, and a desire to somehow give back to the people who have given me so much.
This was Tom’s final gift to all of us– an opportunity to re-connect and remember what is most important in life.
For me, it’s the people in it– those special people we share our life with.
We have the opportunity, at any moment, to make them our first priority. We can choose to structure our life for community. We can choose to fight for it. We can choose to dedicate ourselves to building connection.
Increasingly, those are the choices I wish to make