Fundamentally, we are social creatures. No way around it, our whole being thrives when connected to others. As an introvert myself, I sometimes find extended time with large groups of people draining, but I also know that social isolation, loneliness and the depression that often accompanies it is even more harmful.
While more and more “connected” via the internet and our myriad of mobile devices. Sometimes I fear that quantity has been substituted for quality of interaction. And I strongly encourage everyone to use their devices as the miraculous tools that they are; but to not ask the device to play the role of human social companion, because it will not be able to meet this task.
A community is a group of people that depend on each other: physically, socially, economically, and emotionally. Even the word itself, originally from latin, has the meaning of “together” and “gift.” Thus illustrating that all people stand to both give and receive when members of a community. There is a word in South African culture, ubuntu, which roughly translates to, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” This is precisely the same concept as community. We are all connected, interdependent and ultimately our fates are all intertwined.
With out love, nurturing and caring, even with proper feedings babies will die. We never did grow out of that. Without social and emotional connection we humans can suffer from isolation, depression and despair. Without others to support or care for us, we may have needs that go unmet. Without others to nurture, teach and encourage, we become callous self-centered and lack purpose and fulfillment. Ultimately, without a community, we are unable to be supported in achieving our best health.
Our classically American ideal of “the self made man,” contributes to people’s drive for self sufficiency, independence and discourages reaching out as a sign of weakness. Amongst many of the ways that American culture has gone awry, this one is quite damaging. We shun fulfilling relationships out of our own ego’s desire to achieve independent financial success. But such single minded focus on such a narrowly defined idea of success leaves many people anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, isolated, unsatisfied and demoralized.
One thing I recently learned is that being part of a community doesn’t mean that you lose your independent identity. I used to feel confused by social networks feeling like inorder to “belong” I had to be “just like every one else” and I was uncomfortable with this, and never felt like any one group was the “right” fit for me. Now I know that it is quite the opposite. Communities are strong when people with different strengths come together to share those strengths. What is easy for me is not what is easy for someone else (and vice versa) so if we join forces we can both be stronger. This freedom to maintain my self and my individual identity amongst the broader context of a community has brought me tremendous joy and strength.
Additionally, community support is essential for supporting and motivating healthful behavior changes. If all your friends are going out bike riding, you are much more likely to join them. Same thing with food habits. If you are supported in making good choices, it will be easier for you to make them.
So how do we find, build, create community today? I always get frustrated when people would tell me, “just go out into the world and meet people…” This never really worked for me; or rather, it was too vague, I needed more direction. Here are some suggestions that I find a little more helpful:
- Do things you love. The more excited to share what you are up to, the easier it is to connect with others. Passion is contagious.
- Ask for help. Sure, I could spend half my weekend trying to figure out how to fix my bike and, I might even learn something and take pride in that process, but if I admit a need for someone else to be the expert, they are more likely to want to step in a share their knowledge with me.
- Find ways to encounter the same people repeatedly. Communities and relationships are built over time and proximity.
- Be generous. Both in giving and receiving. Offer something of yours (your seat on the bus, share your table at the cafe, invite your friends over for dinner…) and also accept graciously the invitations or offerings of others.
- Understand and embrace differences.
- Become a resource for others. Even if you can’t help someone directly, if you connect them with someone who can, they will be grateful to you.
- Put in the effort. This would annoy me sometimes, because I kept feeling like, “I am already trying… really hard.” But more what I mean, is reply to messages, or be the first to extend a message. Show people you are interested in having them in your life.
- Be true to yourself. If you are introverted and shy, you needn’t become gregarious. Rather, find ways of connection that feel true to you. Write a letter/email rather than call, organize behind the scenes rather than be onstage, etc…
- Acknowledge your desire for connection/community. Everyone I have ever spoken with on this subject is pleased and relieved to hear that I want connection and that sometimes I feel lonely, because they also feel this way. Acknowledging this desire creates allies as you move forward.
- Do as much of this as you can face to face. The internet and mobile devices are pervasive and can actually be helpful tools in coordinating communities or discovering new opportunities, but relationships are still best nurtured face to face.
- Have patience, keep trying and don’t lose faith.
This is the final post in the Foundations of Health Series. I will follow shortly with a nice summary of all elements which we have discussed over the past weeks.