Read an Excerpt
Finding Joy Together In Chaotic Times
By Paul Born
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Paul Born
All rights reserved.
Our Need Today for Deeper Community
In every community, there is work to be done.
In every nation, there are wounds to heal.
In every heart, there is the power to do it.
—MARIANNE WILLIAMSON, FOUNDER OF THE PEACE ALLIANCE AND AUTHOR
Many times over the past thirty years, especially in connection with the work I've done with others more recently to engage communities in reducing poverty, I've been asked, "What is the most important thing people can do to make a difference in the world?"
"That's simple," I almost always reply. "Bring chicken soup to your neighbor."
"Really?" is the typical response.
I say yes, and then add, "But remember, I said the answer is simple. But the act of bringing soup ... well, that takes work."
It requires that you know your neighbor.
It requires that you know they are not vegetarian and like soup.
It requires that you know them well enough and communicate regularly enough to know they are sick.
Once you know they are sick, you must feel compelled to want to help and to make this a priority among the many calls on your time and energy.
Your neighbor must know you well enough to feel comfortable in receiving your help.
And you must have enough of a relationship to know what they prefer when they are sick, whether it is chicken soup, pho, chana masala, or even ice cream.
So, you see, the work takes place long before you perform the act of bringing soup.
I think you would agree that the challenge, for so many of us today, is to find the time and energy and desire to do the work of being a good neighbor—even to stay close to members of our own family, for that matter. Many of us find ourselves stretched to keep in touch with one another, to share in one another's lives, to strengthen community together. I believe that a combination of the state of the environment and the economy, the stress of our jobs (or of finding a job), and the sped-up nature of life through new technologies is making it difficult for us to invest ourselves in community.
Do you ever feel this way?
Many people I know—including the five hundred people I surveyed in depth as I wrote this book (see the appendix) and the many I reach out to through my work and travels—have told me they want community to be less sporadic and more constant. They recognize that we are in danger of losing a sense of community in our lives. Even though we connect with people often, life today seems more complex than ever. Connecting, therefore, is sporadic and takes a lot of effort. For so many of us, our brothers and sisters and most of our cousins live a long way away, and even those who live nearby are so busy that we manage to connect with them only every month or two. With the exception of a few, the same goes for friends. To visit them means traveling long distances, which often is impractical.
Connecting with people sporadically doesn't feel right to us. More fulfilling would be the ability to show our caring when a friend is sick by going to their place and comforting them, knowing they would do the same for us. Somewhere within us we are aware that we need to deepen our experience of community. We know we should be sharing with family members, friends, and neighbors not just episodes of our lives but whole chapters and books and even libraries: we want to be part of the ongoing story of their lives, and we want them to be part of ours.
Now, it's not as if we never do these things. However, so many people have told me they would like community life to take less effort; they would like it to be a regular part of their daily life; they would like the connections they make to be natural extensions of their comings and goings, not relegated to deliberate actions that require extraordinary effort.
You would think that our neighborhoods would be natural places for building a deeper sense of community. This would be in stark contrast to the experience of being a neighbor today. Unless we are deliberate about meeting, we "hide" behind our apartment door dozens of floors up from a busy cityscape or behind a garage door that closes with a click of a button as we retreat to our suburuban oasis from the stresses of life. Many neighbors are so busy that they seldom even see one another coming and going. On weekends they're lucky to lay eyes on one another, as so many exit their weekday existence by cocooning or taking a quick trip away or heading for the cottage. Besides, we watch far too much TV and are involved in too many activities for our paths to cross.
Does any of the above describe your experience, at least to some degree? Are you like so many people I hear from who say they attend a community fundraiser or a neighborhood party and feel a sense of connection that evaporates as quickly as the event ends? They get involved by joining a church or a yoga class, but unless they attend weekly, they experience little connection outside the deliberate act of attending. Even when they join a committee or a midweek support group, the sense of community is confined to the place and time scheduled for the gathering. They may have a wonderful visit with a group of friends whom they have known for more than a decade but leave knowing it will be months (or years) before they do this again.
I do not want to express dissatisfaction with any of these moments in life. But that is exactly what they are: moments. We need not commit to anything more than the moment, and neither does anyone else. We have community, and then ... well, it is gone, and we go on to the next experience of community. It is as though we have built deliberate barriers of time and place into our community interactions so that we can control how much community we experience and when we experience it. On the surface, this may sound ideal, but as much as we may enjoy this anonymity once in a while, it does not feel very satisfying in the long run.
The Possibilities of Community
I hope that you will join me in exploring the possibility of deeper community today. This book is my call to you—to us—to work together to deepen community: to make a conscious, proactive, intentional effort to hold on to and build on the connections between us, connections that will help us resist the pull of the often-neurotic social responses to the complexity of our times, what I will speak of in the next chapter as shallow community and fear-based community.
Community is not automatic, and it is not automatically optimal. We cannot take it for granted; we cannot assume that it is what it should be; we cannot stand on the sidelines and just hope that things will work out.
When we invest ourselves to deepen our experience of community, we can realize real benefits. Community can help shape our identity as a collective and interdependent people. It creates the opportunity for us to care for and about others and, in turn, to be cared for, the key interaction that builds a sense of belonging. When we belong and enjoy strong relationships with one another, we can rely on one another in both good and difficult times. This makes us more resilient, and it makes us healthier. It improves our economic opportunities (think about networking to find a job) and, as studies show, even makes us happier.
The Possibilities of Community for Our Children
My wife, Marlene, and I often wonder about the possibilities of community for our sons and what their memories of community will be when they are older. How will they know who they are and where they belong?
We spoke about this shortly after the birth of our first son, Lucas. For us, community was a defining understanding of how we wanted to raise our children; it was even reflected in the wording of our marriage vows. We committed ourselves to providing our children (Michael would follow, five years later) with as many "deep" experiences of community as we could. We went to church because it was a community. We attended reunions of our extended families, organized neighborhood barbecues, and helped out at a variety of schools and with a myriad of sports teams, because each of these represented community in our sons' lives.
We also spoke to them about community and its importance. For example, we shared a particular bedtime story with them many a night. I saw it as a nighttime prayer. As told to our son Michael, it went like this:
Once upon a time there was a little boy, and his name was Michael, and everybody loved him: his mom, and his dad, and his brother [Michael interrupted me one night, piping up with, "That's not true, Dad; Lucas just likes me—he told me so"], his oma and opa [German for "grandma" and "grandpa"] and his lola [Filipino for "grandmother," which we called Marlene's mother after her sisters' families returned from four years of volunteer mission work in the Philippines], and all his cousins [a satisfied grin always covered Michael's face at this point; he really loved his cousins], and all the children at school, and everyone at his church [Michael always interjected "Not everybody," to which I would say, "Just about everybody," and he would say, "Yaaaa"], and all his neighbors [at which point Michael would beam and say, "Especially Dave and Marilyn; they have a pool"].
And I would smile and give him a big hug and say, "Love ya," and Michael would say back, "Love ya, too. Goodnight."
Bridging the Self-to-Community Gap
Marlene and I want our children to have not only a positive self-identity but also a positive community identity. However, the complexity of our times makes living in community perhaps the biggest challenge we face.
I believe that Charles Dickens would not find it difficult to extend his description of the eighteenth century, in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, to our century, for we, too, live in the best of times and the worst of times.
For an example of the best of our times, consider how so many countries have come to understand the importance of the rights of every individual. We have embraced feminism and dismantled racism—or at least have built a broad social consensus against racist language and attitudes. We have welcomed gays and lesbians into greater participation in social institutions. We have spoken out against torture in war and violence toward children. There is a growing understanding today, from our youth on up, that we must care for those in need and fight the downward pull of hatred based on ethnicity and ideology. There is a growing consensus that we must work for a just society and the protection of the rights of the individual.
Is it possible, though, that the pendulum has swung too far? In making it a priority to enhance individual rights and opportunities, have we made it easier for people to ignore community responsibilities? Tracking along with the positive gains we have made with regard to individualism are examples of the worst of our times: when families struggle to find appropriate day care or schools, as if children were an individual responsibility, or when we walk past or even over the homeless, believing that they must have done something to deserve their plight. If someone were to win a million dollars, the world might say, "Good for you. Go ahead and spend it; you deserve it—it's yours." But our culture's individualistic approach does not bring deep satisfaction. Compare this with cultures in which people share windfalls with one another through potlatches or at large community weddings. Do we live in a time when an excessive focus on self is dismantling our need or sense of responsibility for one another?
We are tempted, when so much that comes at us is a mixture of the good and the bad, to throw up our hands in bewilderment and do nothing. But many individuals and groups are fighting against the worst-of-times aspects of life today. I see people of every socioeconomic bracket and faith and employment level struggling to make sense of the changes they're facing, desperately seeking a future for their children that is better than the one they see coming. They—we—are seeking new answers and, in turn, are find ing deeper connections. For example, in an age of globalization, many of us are "going local." We're rediscovering local foods and gardening, the simple pleasures of walking and cycling, and our neighbors. Each connection we make in these contexts deepens our resolve. We're using the Internet to offer people who want to visit our cities a free or inexpensive week's stay in our homes. We're sharing services. Consider the "casual carpools" in the San Francisco Bay Area, whereby pedestrians line up in certain locations and, on the basis of trust, take the next car in line, driven by a stranger—no, by a fellow citizen.
Community has the power to change everything. We all know this. Whether in places where we work together; neighborhoods where we share emotional, physical, and cultural resources; or countries where we strive to live at peace, we must mobilize people to work together toward a common vision if we are going to deepen community for all.
The challenge, however, is not so much to find ways as groups to reach out to others as it is to bridge the gap from the self to the group in the first place. The challenge is to understand, and get past, our own sense of isolation. We embrace our culture's veneration of rugged individualism, acting in ways that Eastern cultures would see as selfish. How do we begin to turn this around? How do we make the connection from the self to others? How do we build a bridge between ourselves and others? How do we cross it?
My Experience of Community
I have learned a lot about community in my work at the Tamarack Institute, where we have helped many rediscover the power of community. This has resulted in a reduction of poverty for nearly 250,000 people. We are confident, as people in cities are reaching out, seeking deeper connection, and relearning the skills of community engagement and collaboration, that we will reach our goal of reducing poverty for one million families.
We have seen that people can learn and make choices to work together and to care together. That no matter how difficult the task, through community engagement and collaboration we can create a positive vision, organize ourselves to achieve it, and realize a better future for all. Our key learning? That even though it takes a lot of commitment and skill to change our cities, no amount of talent or hard work matters if people do not share a sense of community. The deeper the community, the easier and better the outcome.
I also learned a lot as I grew up in a small, mostly Mennonite farming community. We were not a cloistered group like the Old Order Mennonites or Amish but were similar in many of our beliefs. We (our parents) were refugees from Ukraine in the Soviet Union who had come to Canada after World War II. Because of the deprivation and violence that we had experienced, we kept close to one another. Eben Ezer Mennonite, our church of about four hundred people, was both the social and spiritual center of our lives. We were a community that was trying to heal and establish itself in a newfound country. I grew up feeling a tremendous sense of warmth, identity, and belonging, which was the foundation of my later understanding of community.
In my late teens, I studied to be a minister. Even though I quickly realized that this was not for me (I often joke that I like sin too much), I learned a lot during that time about the ideal of living a simple life with others. This experience gave me an intellectual understanding of community and inspired me to seek out and hear the stories of communities from many traditions.
In the 1980s, not long after we married, Marlene and I moved into our first home, on a small street in Cambridge, Ontario, in Canada. There our sons grew up with loving neighbors. Many of the families on that street celebrated holidays and birthdays together, swam together in the one pool on the street, and supported one another in the rearing of children. This profoundly shaped my understanding and adult experience of community.
Family has always been central to community for me and a source of many insights. The family I grew up in, and my extended family of cousins and uncles and aunts, influenced me profoundly. Marlene and our sons are amazing, fun, and supportive. And now Marlene's cousins and aunts and uncles—who publish a regular family newsletter called The Eppisode (the title refers to their last name, Epp)—are teaching me about community and bringing it into my life.
I have been blessed with jobs in great workplaces, with colleagues who collaborate to build neighborhoods and improve communities to make the world a better place. Deep friendships have formed among us as we have worked together, committing ourselves to one another and a cause. While helping others to build community, we ourselves have become a community through our jobs, potlucks, celebrations, and parties.
The church I have attended for the past decade is filled with warm and caring people. Most have attended the church since they were children and have a deep sense of place there. The building is beautiful and the music heavenly. My primary reason for belonging, however, has not been to attend Sunday-morning worship services; it has been to gather with the community, to pray and reflect and be hopeful with others, to share in their lives and they in mine.
I feel community with friends who live in my city and with many who no longer do. Other communities in my life include the social circles Marlene and I belong to and my yoga studio.
Excerpted from Deepening Community by Paul Born. Copyright © 2014 Paul Born. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.