Saturday, August 20, 2011

Better Together: The Spiritual Practice of Community

Western culture places enormous value on the individual, independence and personal achievements. We often live completely removed not only from our neighbours but also from our own family. Gone are the days of the multi-generational home and a true sense of community. There was once a time, not so long ago, when a family would (literally) not survive without their neighbours. Nowadays those who work, eat and play with their actual neighbours are probably Amish or living on a commune. Even those of us who start out in a nuclear family and grow to have children of our own usually end up alone. We break away from our parents, our children fly the coop and our spouses die. If we are lucky enough to grow old we will find ourselves among the loneliest, most depressed demographic in the world; either living alone or dying with strangers in a nursing home.

I know many people, mostly introverts, who are quite comfortable in their own company; but even introverts need to be intimately involved with others. Living in community challenges us in ways that no other spiritual practice comes close to: we learn to work together, make sacrifices, forgive, share and cooperate. We also learn that we can't always get what we want, that we aren't the centre of the universe and that other people matter. We share in their joy and suffering. When we know people well they become real people, with histories and dreams of their own; not just two-dimensional characters in our own story.

It seems to me that stronger communities, not communities of like-minded individuals but actual side-by-side neighbours helping one another, just might be the most important step backwards the world could hope to make. A few months ago I heard a popular feminist on talk radio. I can't remember her name but she's been around for decades and the interviewer asked her what change would most help improve the lives of women. I expected her to say something like more women in politics or equal pay but she surprised me by saying (I'm paraphrasing here) that women need to start working together again. That every day in every neighbourhood women are in their homes doing the exact same chores: cooking and cleaning and raising their children. We are all exhausted and lonely. Imagine how much more efficient it would be if the women worked in groups, some minding the children, a few prepping evening meals, others spending the afternoon folding laundry or running errands for the group. By the end of the day all the work would be accomplished with much less effort and in the company of others.

I know I am an idealist but there is a realist in me too. I know this would never work and I think I know why: we have forgotten how to live with others. We want it our way, right away. We have preferences for how the socks are folded, how much cumin is in the curry and which route to take through town. We live in the kind of society where if we don't like the way someone looks or how they spend their time we never have to talk to them -even if there is only one wall separating their home from our own. And we won't even look like snobs if we ignore them; they expect us to! In fact, we'd be going out on a limb if we walked next door to introduce ourselves. We'd probably be received apprehensively if not suspiciously. Who can blame them? We ourselves don't want to be inconvenienced or imposed on. Sure, we'll help out at church on Sunday but heaven forbid someone knock on our door after supper when we've put our feet up in front of the television after a long, hard day. We want to give on our terms. We guard our time jealously, as if it actually belongs to us.

I want to live and work side-by-side with other women and their families. If I spend a whole day inside this little apartment with my husband and two children I start to go a little crazy. I get mean, impatient, bored and discouraged. I need other women to talk to, to teach me how to be a good mother, to help me stay on course, to show me how to make a good casserole. I want my children to grow up with friends who live next door and not spend my days driving to play groups or activities across town. I want to be in relationship with people simply because they are people who live close by not because they meet a certain criteria to be considered my friends. It seems we no longer need to enter into any relationship that really challenges us. Real life neighbours make for complicated relationships: they are alcoholic, elderly, wealthy, cancer survivors, immigrants, drug dealers, prom queens and assholes. We choose our friends because they are like us. They like the same movies, share our religious beliefs and sense of humor. We are usually close in age, have similar incomes and dress pretty much the same. Boy, we must really love ourselves! Every relationship we choose reinforces our choices and affirms our worth.

But it ain't so with neighbours. We don't choose them. They are kind of like family in that respect. We must learn to work through our differences, to tear down walls and build healthy boundaries, to let go, to be useful, to be valued and to be vulnerable, to give and receive. It's very difficult to be spiritually well on our own. We grow together or we stay sick alone (in our little oasis of a home where the laundry is folded properly and the curry always has just the right amount of spice!).


jss said...

Somewhere in the middle of individuality and community is reality. It is unquestionable that we have a need to find and express our individuality. The paradox is that this inner, true person can be found only in relation to other people.

I am so often these days astounded at the ways and means God has set as the truth of human beings.

You might enjoy reading books by the people at the Jean Baker Miller Institute, their central premise being that women achieve their greatest potential when in relationship to others rather than going it alone.

Michelle said...

I used to think that you became "spiritual" by retreating like a hermit but now I realize that isn't the only, or most practical, way to grow spiritually.

Living with others is messy. It's practical. It's challenging. I'm learning that I grow more spiritually by dealing with toddler tantrums than going to a retreat!

I always enjoy reading what you have to add JSS. I'll be googling Jean Baker Miller Institute now...