A LONELY MORNING
Several weeks ago, I awoke on Sunday morning in a town I hardly know. And my car wouldn’t start. Dead. Miles from my carrier’s nearest cellular tower, my phone had no reception. No outgoing calls. No data. No nothing. I was about as alone as you can be in North American civilization. And I’ll be completely honest—I felt a little panicked.
Cars break down all the time, right? In the grand scheme of things it’s a mild hardship, and I’ve certainly endured far worse. So why the anxiety?
I don’t think I was anxious about the car. I think I was anxious because I felt alone and help-less.
SUFFERING IN A LONELY WORLD
I think a lot of the anxiety we call suffering is not really suffering. I think it’s the fear we harbor of having to suffer alone.
Because we live in a fractured world.
Production is king, and separation is its slave. In the (sub)urban sprawl, we drive to jobs an hour away and to massive churches an hour in the other direction. When we arrive home, we pull directly into attached garages and may go months without tipping an honest wave to a neighbor.
Transience is king and isolation is its slave. The average Baby Boomer changed jobs twice before the age of thirty. Millenials are changing jobs seven times in that span. And in a global economy, a job change is often a geography change. Our neighbors come and go with startling frequency, and why put down roots in a place when the ground is always shifting?
Privacy is king and loneliness is its slave. Our loneliness is even expressed in our architecture. New houses are built with back decks instead of front porches. Homes are constructed with the living areas—kitchens and family rooms—in the rear of the home, where privacy rules. Our next door neighbors might as well be living on the other side of the planet.
We are souls detached from a larger story. Separated from the stories of the people around us, we endure our pain silently. Alone.
And that is terribly frightening.
Because we were built to endure pain, but we were also built for relationship and connectedness and community. We were not designed to suffer alone.
A COMMUNAL MORNING
On that Sunday morning, as I stood in the middle of a quiet main street and felt my chest fill with lonely tension, I took a breath and reminded myself where I was. Although I hadn’t lived there in almost twenty years and am now a stranger there, I was in the town of my birth—Dixon, IL.
Dixon is a small town. And like many rural Midwestern towns there is a strong—almost tangible—sense of community. People wave hello, even when they don’t know you. They gather spontaneously, without invitation. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone wants to know your story.
Now, I don’t want to get all John-Cougar-Mellencamp-on-you and start idealizing small town life, but I will say this: when I remembered where I was, I remembered that in Dixon, there is always someone available to help you in your time of need.
I breathed again. I looked around. Half a block away, a group of four elderly men sat at a sidewalk table, sipping their morning coffee. Although I’d never met them, I knew they would be glad to help. And sure enough, they had my car started in five minutes. I think they would have spent the rest of the day chatting if I had stuck around.
COMMUNITIES OF HURTING-BUT-TOGETHER PEOPLE
My heart is heavy this week with reminders that we cannot escape hardship and pain. No matter how hard we try, pain is coming for us all eventually. Instead of fruitlessly scrambling to avoid it, I think we should invest our time and energy into preparing for it.
And I think the best preparation is the forging of authentic community.
I recently told a friend I had wrestled a dishwasher up a flight of stairs by myself. His response was quick and sincere, “Because you lost my number?”
It was community and grace and a sudden awareness that maybe they’re the same thing.
And if community is grace-in-clothes, you don’t have to drive to a small town to find it. You have to bring the small town to you. A community does not have to be huge. But it does have to be here. In the place where you are. Community is love you can see and smell and touch.
Community is the shoulder you can cry on when the deck is stacked against you. Community is the invitation to be a mess when you need to be. Community is the joyful embrace of your complicated story. Community is the e-mail or phone call or text message that says, “I’m thinking about you, even when you are away.” And community is the grace-filled invitation to always return to a place, no matter how wrecked you might be.
And if community is grace-with-a-heartbeat, the biggest barrier to it will actually not be found in a fractured world. The biggest barrier to community will be you. Because in order to receive the grace of authentic community, we will have to believe we are worthy of receiving it.
In the end, a community is a group of people who can receive the aid of another with a glad heart—without a sense of guilt or indebtedness. A group of people who care enough about their own hearts to make them available to others, in all of their brokenness and suffering and pain. A group of people willing to lean on the strength of others. A group of people willing to risk vulnerability and to offer sacrifice.
In the dark hour before dawn this morning, my son read me this passage: “Edward Tulane waited. He repeated the old doll’s words over and over until they wore a smooth groove of hope in his brain: Someone will come; someone will come for you. And the old doll was right.”
Will you be ready to receive community when it comes for you? Will you be ready to offer it when someone else needs you to come for them?
I hope you will be. Because a mind filled with a smooth-groove-of-hope has a whole lot less room for fear.
Comments? Have you ever received an experience of community? Taken the risk to offer community? Please feel free to share in the comments below.
DEAR READER, The next Tuesday Tip will include ten practical ways to build community. Share your idea in the comments and it might make it in! And, as always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly
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