A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on this blog about not going alone in this life and the importance of community. But I also know that building community is not easy. When I put the microscope on my own life, I realize that I am a classic example of how we all struggle to seek, create and nurture authentic community. So I want share about what I am learning, mostly through my own mistakes, misgivings and fear. Creating authentic community is always a challenge, but I continue to seek it because it fills my basic human need for deep connection with others, and I believe that it is the key ingredient to a sense of solidarity or the understanding that our fates are bound together with others’ on this journey.
First, I am introverted, which means that I gain energy from being alone, being still, being quiet. And it means that when my job or my life consistently puts me in situations when I am interacting with others, my energy is drained even though I enjoy those interactions. More often than not, my natural inclination with free time is to retreat and re-energize. I will always need this, and I know this. So if I want authentic community, it needs some structure, pre-planning, and intentionality. Community doesn’t just happen. Even though moments of grace and natural connection can help community grow, ultimately it takes effort to build, achieve, and cultivate. And that effort starts with identifying people with whom I want to journey alongside and then laying down a foundation of regularity. It seems that precisely when I least want to be more extroverted, it is then that the regularly scheduled community visit or meeting or discussion comes around, and it fills a need I didn’t even know I had and it draws me closer to others and out of my own little world.
Regularity is a foundation, but if the time together isn’t intentional, we’ll miss the gift that community has to offer. I’m guilty of this one constantly, but I’m working on it. You can agree too: sometimes it’s easier to talk with others about work, sports, pop culture or what’s in the news – and that is good and necessary – but ultimately authentic community calls us deeper, to share more vulnerably so that we may carry one another’s burdens and celebrate one another’s joys. My wife and son and I get together with a group of four other neighborhood families once a month and in that space, we’ve experienced occasions of honest relationship building, but we’ve also experienced the dissatisfaction of remaining on the surface in our conversations. We are hopeful to push into more important topics, but it will take effort.
Finally, in the quest for authentic relationship, all communities will encounter bumps – tests of commitment, disagreements of what authentic community even looks like, differing concepts of the hopes and goals of the group, unintentionally hurt feelings and on and on. It is in these bumps – that is, if we’re willing to forge ahead, holding the tension and difficulty instead of glossing over them or quitting – it is in these bumps where the most unshakeable bonds are formed.
So if you’re like me and are continually in need of reminders about how to actually do this in a world where it is easy and tempting to bury our heads in front of smartphones or laptops, when it is easier to keep up with people over Twitter and Facebook than it is to actually journey together with others, when our college residence halls, suburbs, and apartment complexes are all constructed to isolate us from one another, when the art of community and vulnerability and shared vision are all seemingly unattainable, I remind myself of these hints:
1) Be intentional. Invite people to something greater, set schedules, plan for your time together. Ask each other questions that go beneath life’s surface.
2) Be patient. Community can’t be rushed.
3) Be patient some more. Every community member is unique and has a different comfort level with the pace at which relationships are forged.
4) Try building relationship with community members in 1-on-1 settings too.
5) Reflect on and talk about what you want out of community with others.
6) First, affirm others… second, ask deepening questions… third, listen… fourth, listen some more… fifth, challenge others when needed… sixth, be open and willing to be challenged and to change… and seventh, affirm others.
7) Keep your heart open to the possibilities that these relationships may bring, but that you cannot yet predict.
Maybe all that we do is practice for what comes next in our lives. What we think of ourselves, how we treat and speak to others, where we focus our energy now – will likely be how we think of ourselves in the future, how we treat others in the next chapter of our lives, and where we focus our energy the rest of our lives. We always have the opportunity to change course, but it is easier to develop patterns now for the life we want to live than it is to change those patterns later. So it is with community, if we can find ways to build it now, wherever we are in our lives, then we’ll build it later down the road too. Similarly, if we close our hearts and deny people entry into our lives now, then we will likely deny people entry into our lives later. But if we open ourselves to the friends and family around us now, if we open our lives somehow to the neighbor, to the stranger, to the enemy now, then we’ll open our hearts and lives to others always. Sounds dangerous, risky, and vulnerable? It is… but it’s part of the only path to authentic community and living in harmony with others in a common vision for our neighborhoods and world.
Greg Carpinello serves as the Director of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. He and his family live in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood of Cincinnati, a place where they are continuously seeking and finding authentic community. In the CFJ, building community is an integral part of groups Greg works with such as the Summer Service Internship and Contemplatives In Action.