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Community and its discontents: the joys and woes of social groups

Community and belonging
Communities and belonging…

I remember going to the Schomberg Community Fair when I was about eight years old and being absolutely riveted by the sight of the Brownies marching in the parade.  I was overcome instantly with the desire to join up. They had uniforms! They had a sense of purpose (I thought) and they were in the parade, not watching from the sidelines like me. Belonging was expensive, but my parents found a way. The following autumn I was enrolled, and within a few short months, I was completely disenchanted. The uniform was cool, but they wouldn’t let us go out and get dirty in it, and we did a lot of sitting around. I felt the activities were uninspiring and the story-time was well below my reading level. I had gone in with expectations of adventure and challenge and instead found a glorified form of baby-sitting.  Belonging didn’t feel like I expected it would.

We all crave a sense of belonging, and most humans are wired in a way that makes social acceptance an   imperative. Recent studies have demonstrated that humans will ignore blatant and demonstrable facts if those facts threaten their chosen social alliances. We all need support, friendship, a sense of purpose, and the communities we belong to help fulfill those needs.

Communities are always changing…

I am a great champion of community, interdependence, and the benefits of relationships. At the same time, having been part of so many of communities, I’m also cautious. Communities, like some friendships, can come and go. Some communities arise spontaneously, are a great deal of fun, and then fade away. This kind of community often is the result of a special project or event. I’ve met “families” of friends while travelling or while on a cycling trip.  Once everyone goes home, promising to keep in touch forever, everyday life intercedes and the glue that held the magic together gradually loses its grip.

Other communities, such as churches or Legions, are purpose-built: they have a mission, or a legacy, or perform a social role. Leadership is built into the mandate, and expectations can be managed more formally. As valuable as these communities are, most are dependent on the quiet and unglamorous labour of volunteers to keep them running. Also, the energy needed to drive them, to keep them vital and relevant, is hard to maintain. Members have to be prepared to work tirelessly, and often without a lot of thanks or recognition, to keep them afloat.

As the population ages and changes, many of our traditional communities, like bowling leagues and Lion’s Clubs, are starting to disappear, and new online communities are taking their place. (I’m not sure that virtual communities really amount to the same thing, but that’s a topic for another day).

Being part of a community takes work…

Communities are about relationships, and group dynamics, and individual egos. To serve the needs of the majority some people may be excluded, or they may feel excluded if they’re a little different (I’ve been this person, and also have felt the awkwardness of trying to include the person who makes everyone feel uncomfortable). That eccentric or difficult person (which is sometimes me lol) is always the test of how committed we are to the idea of inclusiveness. In my experiences, communities can harm as well as heal.

Communities are living, tenuous, challenging entities, and best held loosely, because too many expectations suffocate them. The results of any communal effort are only as good as the people working to create them. We could think of communities as social art projects.

The ideal of community can be problematic.  Many yoga communities have been torn to bits by scandals, bullying, or abuse, and some for-profit “communities” dangle the concept of belonging to entice their customers to keep spending. If the communication of purpose is honest, this may be perfectly legitimate, but the stated reason for a community’s existence doesn’t always divulge the real motivation of its creators. And then there are cults, terrorists and hate groups, which are communities driven by pathological leaders and unhealthy power dynamics.

Community is a loaded word, but one that is worthy of contemplation and action. We are capable of creating group collaborations that have great social benefits, but we can also create harm if our intentions are unclear, or unethical, or unskilful.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a thinker much wiser than me:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.  Albert Einstein

Here’s to appropriate and wise exertions!



PS what are your thoughts on community? Have you belonged to a community that has really helped and supported you? Have you experienced difficulties with communities? Please share your wisdom in the comments below.

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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend

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