Community is such an old human word—800-ish years old in Latin (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community) and likely far older than that in other languages and cultures I’d guess. A unified body of individuals, says Merriam Webster. Love that.
Community is a word that has lived through time relatively unscathed. As near as I can tell, community was generally considered a good thing way back when, and it’s generally considered a good thing now. Many words these days are not so lucky, have you noticed this? So many words—too many words—are devolving into harsher, narrower shadows of their former selves as they’re experienced and redefined by individuals who feel disconnected.
But not the word community. No. Community persists: a warm, welcoming, kind, and fully human word. And a truly bad-ass word, in my opinion, because it does persist, like the other bad-ass words: love, friendship, play, laughter, gratitude, and joy.
It feels a bit uppity to attempt to delve deeper and possibly generate a new understanding of the word now. But the way I experience it, community is where all my apparently individual uppity (and so many other fun adjectives I can own and adore these days) comes from. So what the hell? Let’s go.
Today, for me, community is an unexpectedly diverse and unified body of individuals who help ensure that life is surprising and delightful. This body includes personally trusted others and also kind and trusting/trusted strangers.
Unlike small self-organizing groups (collectives whose members are surprised and delighted by what they become and do together), which have no individual at the center—communities are actually individual-specific. They DO have an individual at the center. You, me, and everyone: we each have our own community. So although there may be significant overlap (“We are both part of the _______ community.”), your community varies from mine, because your community includes 1) the people that you personally know and trust, 2) all the strangers you trust because they are kind to you or because you recognize that they are trusted by others within your community, and 3) all the strangers that trust you. And mine contains mine.
Because personally trusted others and kind and trusted/trusting strangers are different for each individual, the community is different for each individual. Each person’s community is a unique world unto itself: remarkably connected to and interwoven with the others and also unique to beautiful, scrappy, appears-to-be little you.
I wish I could draw. Here’s a shot at what I mean.
Individual Lori (Me)…
Self-organizing group Lori (Me becomes the outer edge)…
At first blush, this may sound like a modern, individualistic, self-centered definition of community. I’ve given this one year of conscious lived experience and thought, though, and I’m starting to become more certain that it’s not. For one thing, with this understanding comes the new understanding (for me anyway) that every individual I meet today is the living, breathing center of their own community. This makes everyone significantly more connected, influential, and powerful than they appear (and often know) in their individual forms. Every individual—no matter what status or title or role or gender or age or place of birth or any of the other ways we’ve divided ourselves up—is the center of their own community. I repeat myself here because this warrants repeating.
I experience this as a necessary evolution in understanding of ourselves as community, because we are living in a time when most of us are so flooded with information as individuals that we have no idea which end is up many days. This can cause us as individuals to over-rely on the published ideas of distant experts and to undervalue those people we’re directly connected to every day and to undervalue our individual selves.
Our planet is not experiencing large-scale crisis because too many people overvalue themselves. Our planet is experiencing crises because too many of us undervalue ourselves and those we’re with every day. It’s when we undervalue and underestimate ourselves and those we’re with that we can end up compromising what we believe and making decisions out of fear. It’s from this undervaluing place that we hurt others and ourselves.
Wow, that felt like a huge statement, and I’m not really a fan of making huge statements. So I’m going to chalk that one up to the influence of my off-the-charts, crazy-amazing community. To you.
The other reason I’m getting comfortable with this new understanding of community is that I’m now experiencing community—much like the states of individual, self-organizing group, and the space between these states—as a fluid state. For many of us, a community is no longer a solid, well-defined, local, physical, I-was-born-into-it-on-the-ground state. And even if we recognize that we were born into one, and even if we happen to still be physically living within that first one, we are still part of many, many others now. Or, as I now experience it, many, many others are now part of us, thanks to our communities.
If community is already being experienced and lived as a fluid state, what exactly does that say about us as humans? For me, this year it has meant learning to become comfortable as the space between: happily moving within and across my individual self, my many self-organizing group selves, and many communities—almost all of which I experience as part of myself. Most days. As part of one whole, diverse, crazy, fun, beautiful, scary-at-moments, but overall kind, welcoming, warm, and loving self.
We are so much more than we can know we are or be as individuals. Community wraps us in the surprise and delight we need to laugh, play, relax, and know this for ourselves and to come to know more of our whole, true, beautiful selves. This hasn’t changed since the word community was first spoken, because this doesn’t need to change.
I think that’s why community as a word and as an experience persists and why it will persist despite our precarious piles of individual fears.
Because we each carry community with us like a found, treasured, smooth stone in our pocket: a burden so light and easy to hold that most days it’s actually carrying and helping us as individuals, not the other way around.
There is no down side to community.
It’s who we are. It’s why we last. Even when we as individuals, as organizations, and as societies sometimes forget that. Like the found, smooth, and treasured stones in my jacket pockets that show up to surprise and delight me again and again.
My stones have names: Daniel, Cassie, Erik, Chris, Kristine, Emil, Jen, Jim, Linda, Grady, Joe, Ansel, Bella, Bas, Ali, Tim, Kathy, Sherrard, Kristen, Diane, Alice, Ronald, Doug, Gail, Jacqueline, Don, Peter, Patrick, Jana, Chelsea, Fisher, Lisa, Kyle, Emily, David, Eddie, Meg, and Rumi. Some have begun to rename themselves as they better recognize themselves: Batman, Story Wrangler, PinkNinya Yammer-blastLil, Bernie Frabjous, d’Artagnan Evergreen Barbosa, Elans Melees Joy. Crazy bunch of pirates. God love’em.
Surprise and delight. That’s how we roll. That’s community.