Seeking the Elusive Community

Every poet from William Shakespeare to John Lennon has tried to define love. They all failed. Good. To precisely define a concept of such profundity is to trivialize and cheapen it. Such is the also the case with other notions of importance and among them is community. Community is being tested today in countries and companies and schools. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to walk the poet’s mile toward community’s unattainable definition with the hope that the existential journey affords wisdom, or at least grace.

Community is a feeling. It grows from shared values, interests, experiences, and goals. We are social animals and so we naturally seek community. It is the yearning or circumstances that lead some to churches and others to street gangs. It is the warmth and smiles of a book club or slow pitch ball team.

National community is dynamic. Most of us are born, live, and die in one country. We find community in implicitly accepting the power of the state, complaining about government, and in the embrace of values that link we the people – the nation. It is community that brings us to our feet for the anthem and after a trip abroad makes the flag look so damn good. It is the national community we miss when emigrating and that offers culture shock to immigrants. The kind-of-heart see the national community as a quilt and celebrate each unique square. On the other hand, the frightened and angry – and those fanning the flames for political gain – tear at community by seeing it as an exclusive tree fort and advocate throwing “the other” out while pushing down the ladder.

Seeking the Illusive Community(Photo: http://www.asantecentre.org)

Corporate community is ephemeral. With new jobs, we sweat the interview, endure our rookie mistakes, and then eventually fit in. We contribute. We finally get the history and jokes. Some colleagues become friends. We become part of the team, part of the community. However, no matter how many casual Fridays, tipsy parties, mission statements, motivational speeches, or team building retreats we enjoy and endure, the boss is always the boss.

Sometimes the boss’ decisions lead to radical policy shifts or dismissals. Unexpected, poorly communicated, or unsupported decisions are painful for those whose experience is demeaned and beliefs belittled. They are tragic for the unfairly and suddenly gone and heartrending for those suffering survival guilt. All are stunned by the realization that they are not really valuable and valued members of a community but interchangeable units of labour. They become haunted. They become hunted. They are torn by the thought that their community is really not a community at all.

National and corporate community builders would do well to read David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting. He decries communities that commemorate every anniversary of some riot, battle, attack, or assassination with sparks of fresh rage. Rieff is not saying we should forget our past, but rather that we should learn to learn from it, accept it, and for the good of the community and ourselves, move on.

Linked to Rieff’s idea, and equally worthy of consideration, is the crazy thought that South Africa, the country that institutionalized racist discrimination, became the world’s model as to how a community recovers from a catastrophic past. The brilliant Nelson Mandela convinced not everyone but enough that speaking the truth of what happened, and why, and by whom, and to whom, would lead to reconciliation. Mandela did not say we should forget, rather that we should explain, understand, atone, and forgive. Canada is now trying the Mandela-Rieff ideas with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All communities live on trust. In Johannesburg, as in Ottawa and Washington, and as in every broken corporate or school community, slogans and tag lines mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Office, title, and job description mean nothing. Hierarchy is a bad and sad joke. Teams made separate are made irrelevant. Truth untold is rumours confirmed. Communities remain strong and broken communities can only be made whole again when trust is unquestioned. Trust is born only of patience, empathy, respect, honesty, loyalty, and transparency. It is seen in how we treat others, all others, when there is no one else around and nothing to gain. Only those who understand that community is not mechanical but organic can contribute to regenerating trust. Those committed to silos or levels of power or walls of exclusion can’t build bridges.

We owe it to ourselves to preserve strong communities and reconstitute those that deserve recovery. We need to understand and celebrate the strength in those that are thriving. In others, we must mourn that which was broken and help those who were hurt. Let’s shun the shouters, dividers, and serial liars. Let’s ignore the cynics, sycophants, and saboteurs. Tomorrow’s community is for those who hope and work for better, armed with lessons learned and wisdom earned.

A values-based community offers explanation and inspiration, a ladder and a net, and shelter from the storm. It’s worth the work. And maybe that’s as close to a definition as we need.

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John Lennon Was Right

Reduce the Bible to its essence. Consider the messages of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Dali Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi. What is the plea of a baby’s cry or a wounded soldier’s moan? What explains both the sad old man feeding pigeons on a Sunday morning and the smiley young pup at the bar the night before? John Lennon knew – all we need is love.

For a long time I thought I understood. It began on the first day of my last year of high school. I took my assigned seat in Biology class. Decked out in my purple corduroy bell bottoms and high collared green silk shirt and with my curly brown hair falling to my shoulders, I slid into my desk with the practiced sneer of teenage sullenness. Then it happened. To my left sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was gobsmacked. The poor teacher rattled on but I heard nothing. I just had to speak with her. I finally asked to borrow her ruler. There it was. Neatly printed on the back was her name. Nirvana! I drew a few quick lines and returned it, swooning at the thought that my hand had brushed hers.

The tall blond girl and I have been married now for decades. As teenagers we thought we knew everything. We quickly learned that we knew nothing. And now what we know for sure is that everyone makes it up as they go along and do the best they can. After all these years, no one can make me laugh as she does. No one can put me right like she does. She has saved me, made me, remade me, and inspired me to become the best I can be. Without her I would now be dead, in jail, or sleeping under a bridge.

John Lennon John Lennon

Our child arrived when we were little more than children ourselves. Due to the necessity of finding work, we were living hours from home and family. We relied on logic, instinct, each other, and the long-distance wisdom of moms and grand-moms to figure it all out. We did the best we could and we did OK. As the years of teenage angst rendered our lives more interesting we kept pledging that we would not let her moods dictate ours – we never managed it. As all young people do, she circled the dark side of the moon where communications are temporarily lost and then returned as we knew she would to the safe orbit of family and home. We were only ever as happy as her. We are still only as happy as her. We could not be more proud of her.

This morning, like always, our granddaughter arrived at our door. She bounced in with the sunshine of a six year old; always in the moment, default position stuck on happy, and with the assumption that all is well and always will be. We and her parents are not helicopters hovering to mandate her every move or snowplows eliminating every obstacle. We’re more like bowling alley bumper pads. We ensure that she tacks her way forward in her own way and at her own speed with scraped knees and magic band aids while never knowing the gutter.

I watch her climb trees and play hockey. We’ve dressed up as princesses. We bounce on the trampoline and enjoy picnics in our secret spot. We walk downtown for the best hot dog in the world. We throw stones in the river and hang upside down at the playground. We read and walk and laugh and talk and scheme and joke and tease and cuddle. She always runs faster than me, wins every Trouble game, and patiently explains kids shows that I can never manage to understand. And, regrettably, I rub her arm so the insulin needle won’t hurt quite so much.

Without a clue as to her power, my grand-daughter has reshaped me as first my wife and then my daughter did before. She has taught me what I presumed to already know; what I thought I learned way back in Biology class and on those three-in-the-morning nights when the baby just wouldn’t go back to sleep. She taught me how to love all over again and, this time, more profoundly than I ever imagined possible.

I consider people begging for change on the sidewalk the same as those filling their lives with stuff and screens. I see people defined by their job and whose minds are at work even when their bodies are home the same as those stuck in perpetual adolescence whose buddies are the centres of their circles. I understand the holes in their hearts. It’s sad. I know they will never be filled by the next coin, thing or app, or by the next promotion or beer. Everyone, of course, is free to make their own way. But during the journey, words, gifts, and promises ring hollow and echo silence. Time and attention, on the other hand, skywrite what matters.

I have done a lot, travelled a lot, and accomplished a lot in my life, and have a lot more left to do. But I am convinced that the only reason I am here is to love the three women in my life and to be loved by them. All the rest is background music. Next January I will meet a new teacher who, now that I think I understand, will begin the instruction all over again. I can’t wait. But for now, tomorrow morning, when my grand-daughter arrives for school and what she calls second breakfast, she will remind me once again, as she always does – John Lennon was right.

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