A Sense of Community

Community is such a wonderful thing.  It takes effort – and sometimes hard work – to gain the feeling of community.  

Community helps us gain friends and acquaintances.  It offers the hope of someone being there for you when you are ill or down-and-out.  Living in community gives a sense of wellbeing and belonging.  

There are many different types of community – the city/region where you live, the strangers you meet and how you respond to each other as human-to-human, a church affiliation, societies and clubs, volunteer organizations, and the workplace are some of the places where you can gain a sense of belonging and attachment.

Community helps us gain perspective.  It helps us learn and grow as people, employees, colleagues, friends, and more.  Community helps us obtain a give-and-take – with the feeling of only taking.  

When I first moved to this area, I was reticent of searching for community.  It’s taken me more time to make a broad effort with this move than with previous moves.  

Ironically, churches are the most difficult to gain a sense of community.  An individual may reach out to you and encourage you to attend, but the general feeling of the church and church people is that they seem to be the first to give the feeling that you’re out there to take rather than give.  They appear to be afraid you are going to use them in some way rather than understanding the need for you to feel supported.  If you need food, clothing, medical assistance, they are the last to reach out.  They tend to be quite distant at first then slowly warm up.  (Although the cults/ultra-conservative religions tend to work in the opposite direction.)  They’d much rather you give than for you to receive.  However, churches and church members are often the first to give to organizations.  It’s a political move that I find fascinating and ironic.  The more you give to the community, church and organizations that are approved of, the more prestige you have within the church.  The story of the Good Samaritan is the most esteemed passage in yet Christians are more apt to perform more like the temple where Jesus threw a fit rather than the Good Samaritan.  I also love the story of the woman at the well where Jesus reached out to her – a total cast-off – when he didn’t know her and likely would never see her again in compassion, caring, engagement, and friendship. I totally don’t feel the connection like this when I visit a church or affiliation until I am there for months on a regular basis – with the promise of being there for much longer — and are not a student.  But… I’m getting off track.  

Another form of community is through visiting and being a customer of local businesses.  I often feel most at home and obtain a sense of community through restaurants, coffee shops, and local businesses I frequent.  A friendly face – and, if you’re lucky, a hug, someone who caters to your needs that you pay for (it gives a sense of give-and-take and a great feeling where you feel extra special when they give you a discount or freebie), someone you can show appreciation to, and someone who gives you the time of day are wonderful to obtain — especially when you’re feeling alone and isolated.  I have found these benefits through frequenting the local businesses in my community.  It gives the sense of having a friend (albeit they’re totally not a friend unless you somehow connect with them on a personal level outside of their workplace environment).  

The University of Washington has wonderful ideas as to how you can obtain community.  My absolute favorite idea is random acts of kindness.  To be randomly kind to someone is the most fantastically wonderful thing that totally makes my day.  I remember when I was living off a credit card to survive, I had extra change in my wallet.  I saw a meter that was out of time and was so very excited when I put a quarter or more into his meter.  It made me feel so incredibly good that I could help someone out in such a simple way. (This was in the old days where you fed a meter with coins and didn’t have the option for credit card usage or requirements for a piece of paper to make sure you haven’t hogged a parking place for too long.) Another wonderful thing that made my day was when a homeless person asked me to pay for a sub sandwich.  What a wonderful request!  I ended up giving a foot long as I was confident that he would share whatever he wasn’t able to eat or he would be able to fill up an empty stomach.  

Another idea is community service such as working through volunteering.  There are different ways to do this and so many different options.  You could fold, stamp, and lick envelopes for mailings; volunteer for a hospice or nursing home; hold babies at a hospital; do street outreach; mow the lawn for your church; tutor students at any level of education; teach English as a Second Language; be a cashier or greeter for a local fundraiser opportunity such as the snack bar at a school game or a venue for United Way… there are so many different ways to serve your community through volunteering. 

Another interesting idea that UW shares is that you can simply welcome new neighbors – or meet neighbors who are already in your community.  This is very fun as you can either just say hi, take them food, or invite them to your house for games, food, snacks, tea, coffee… whatever you can invent.  Greeting people as you meet them is wonderful and gives a warm feeling, but having community members in your home – or back yard – makes life so very less lonely during your extended free times.  

Something that is important – yet quite challenging – is to have a conversation with people who are totally different in view points, life experiences, attitudes, and way of living totally different than your own.  I met someone the other day who has a totally different viewpoint and makes choices in how she treats people in a way that I have a very difficult time with.  However, the person gave great insight that was extremely helpful.  To treat someone with dignity and respect, listen to them, learn from them, and not get angry or upset with what they have to say – when you disagree with them 75-100% – is a skill that is wonderful to obtain and engage in.  

One thing that UW didn’t mention is to gain a sense of community through education.  This could be through attending seminars, enrolling in classes at a community college or university, showing up to a talk or presentation at a local book store, or maybe even taking a cooking, acting, music or dance class.

I have learned over the years that gaining a sense of community takes a ton of effort, time, energy, motivation, want-to, drive, thinking power, trouble-shooting, and a willingness for a lot of personal learning, growth, and development.  However, it is so very, very worth it – with or without a life that takes you away from the community you have built – and do so many times over.  I have found that, thanks to email, phone, FB, and technology, I can always take friends with me wherever I go and make new friends that I can take with me to my next location. 

As I become more involved in my local community, I am feeling more and more of a sense of belonging.  I feel less isolated and alone.  I feel happier and more content.  The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests that “meaningful relationships, inclusion and participation [are] key outcomes that promote mental health.”  

What gives you a sense of community?  What advantages do you feel when you idealize, pursue, or obtain a sense of community?  What would it take for you to obtain – or build upon – your sense of community?  

Community is wonderful.  I totally recommend it.  

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