The Reason We All Need Community

Help!In these days our sense of community is decaying, while our anxiety is blooming. This is not a coincidence…

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.

But why?              

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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Photo Credit: Photo taken from this website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • TylerAlyse

    Your posts are always amazing and this one is no different. I always tell people about your writing and today will be no different. But today my husband is moving out of our home and moving cities because we are separating. I have an amazing support system and community where I am that I love, but next week I too shall be leaving and searching for a new community on my own, for the first time. All your posts resonate with me, but this one seems like perfect timing and I will probably read it over and over in the next few days and weeks. Thank you.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      I know this must be a painful time, but I also sense your openness to a new adventure. I trust that, with your openness, you will be met along the way. Please keep me posted on how you are adjusting in your new community!

  • Susan Taylor

    Great post, Kelly. I am assenting with my brain, but am not feeling it in my heart. I don’t see how to create true community in the ‘burbs where everyone including me runs from morning to night. Actually, I’m home a lot and don’t do a lot of kid transport for lessons and teams, but I still have people to see, places to go, and things to DO. I’m not too sure I am willing to put in the time it takes to have an in-person community. I have an online community that I like very much, but of course none of those people can ever be helpful in person. They do, however, respond to the daily postings where I share my victories and my struggles, and I am able to respond to theirs as well.

    I have experienced a sense of community in a small town I visited every summer as a child. I love many things about small towns, although I do not live in one.

    Seems like the ability to have a pseudo-community online is undermining at least my own commitment to finding one in real life, especially since I have tried for many years to find one, and have been unsuccessful. I also have a husband and five kids, so I have lots of interaction with people. I do long, though, for a group of women with whom I can laugh and dance and sing and go places and understand and be understood by. Just no idea how to find it.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Susan, Your thoughts here reflect my own. With a growing family and a growing on-line community that is truly supportive, where does the energy and time for a physical community come from? I’ve tried to invest the energy into developing one in the last year or so, and this post is coming out of the resulting conviction of its importance. And yet it is hard work and tiring, and learning to balance it with all of our other role obligations will be a work in progress. I hope Tuesday’s post will give you some tangible ideas for starting!

  • Michael Hauck

    Thank you brother! Well said, and a great observation of our anxieties. I have often thought of this myself as a reason for ones insecure feelings and anxiety.

    Blessings, MH

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Blessings, Michael!

  • jlanewell

    I have experience real community from the church we belong too. It is wonderful to know you can have good friends that are only a phone call a way. It is rewarding to be able to bless others with help. Something as small as dropping off meals to new parents with a baby in the nicu. Or taking the time to stop by to see someone in the hospital or picking up the phone and checking in due to a recent post on face book by a friend or family member. Technology is to help us with our life not replace real relationships.

    My family has been blessed by our community when I had surgery. I received many cards from friends and family. Several people dropped by to visit me. For weeks they brought meals to our family, in an effort to lighten my husbands load.

    I think we all need community and our lives are richer when we take the time to build relationships. But more than that I think we need community for us to have a balanced life. It is easy to become workaholics and to be caught up in the rat race or get stuck on the wheel of success. It is sad when that happens and we find ourselves alone and our lives are empty and lonely.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thank you for this. We need to hear stories of how people have been blessed by their physical communities! And churches remain one of the most reliable forms. This will be in Tuesday’s post.

  • Dusty

    Yoir blog is a breath of fresh air in a busy week of deadlines and hustle & bustle. Thank you for sharing your talents and wisdom with us all. I will continue to share your site with others in need. My wife hit one out of the park on marriage today on our blog. Take a peak if you are so inclined. Amwalk21.blogspot.com

  • Dusty

    Your blog is a breath of fresh air in a busy week of deadlines and hustle & bustle. Thank you for sharing your talents and wisdom with us all. I will continue to share your site with others in need. My wife hit one out of the park on marriage today on our blog. Take a peak if you are so inclined. Amwalk21.blogspot.com

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks, Dusty, I’ll check it out!

      • Dusty Walker

        Make sure you go back to her blog on “Slow Drip” from Thursday. She always impresses me, but Slow Drip reminded me of one of your posts. http://amwalk21.blogspot.com/2012/09/slow-drip.html?m=1

        • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

          Thanks for bringing me back to that one, Dusty! It’s an excellent post, and something I think we can all relate to. Please express to her my gratitude.

  • MattC

    I agree wholeheartedly, we have to open up and let someone in. In bunches. Lest we allow our online lives define and limit us. After our eighth child I almost felt prejudice against myself. In a chance meeting with the strangers across the street I found out how much in common I have with my friends who are currently childless. We’ve moved 5 times in 10 years and are in need of much help and perhaps more importantly, in need of much opportunity to serve.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Matt, Thank you for the reminder that serving is an excellent way to develop community. I think I’ll be adding that in to Tuesday’s tip.

  • Claire

    The first step to building community (where you live) is getting to know your neighbors, especially the ones that live on either side of you and across the street. Unfortunately, there are obstacles in creating community that come from the way people are raised.

    I live on a street with 5 houses – three on one side, two on the other. Two at one end have older residents (as in over 70) while the two on the other end have younger residents with children about age 6 and younger. We are in the middle, both age-wise and literally. We both grew up in the burbs with heavy influence from the country – we were taught to help out your neighbor whenever the need arose.

    When there’s a storm and tree limbs fall in the yards of our older neighbors, we go out and move them to the street. When a tree fell down in the other road away from our house that blocked the road, the hubby and I moved it so people could get around it. Our younger neighbors aren’t seen in these kinds of situations.

    When a storm knocked a tree down in our back yard, our daughter’s boyfriend recruited friends to help cut it and move it to the street. When the parents of two of the boys found out, they made the boys stop because no cash payment had been offered.

    It seems to me that younger generations are not being taught as we were. That is a big obstacle to overcome when creating a community.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Wow, Claire, the story of the two boys is astounding. Tomorrow’s post has your name written all over it. 🙂

      • Claire

        I just learned last night that one of those boys has cancer. He is 19.

        • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

          Oh my, Claire. Do you have a sense of how you can be grace in clothes to them?

          • Claire

            Not really. Still trying to “digest” the thought that this young man may not live very long. My daughter is a good friend to him, so she may be the one to be “grace in clothes” as you might say.

            • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

              Claire, this must be hitting your daughter and you hard. I hope you are able to digest it together and support each other.

    • jlanewell

      I find this to be so very sad. What a missed opportunity those parents had for their sons to realize it is not all about them. Two summers ago my next door neighbor lost his job. They had 4 children, and his wife was expecting another child. She was 5 months pregnant when she unexpectantly lost the baby. My son home from college started cutting their grass ever week. It helped eliminate some of the outside work since my neighbor had his hands full with all the kids and taking care of his wife. They offered to pay my son and his reply was simply, “Neighbors take care of neighbors”. We are all in this together and we can either help each other out or we can remain electronically connected with no true relationships.

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