Paradox of Community

You probably think community is a good thing. And if you don't have much of it in your life, the thought of having it, may stir a longing in your heart. And yet, you may also recognize in yourself a note of caution when it comes to joining one. There is an age-old fear of losing your identity to the formidable pressures of conforming to the group. When groups go wrong the potential for "group-think" and cult-like behavior is very real. So it's understandable why you hesitate before jumping into the communal swimming pool and drinking the kool-aid with your comrades.

Our mass society's greatest suffering may be the burden of loneliness it imposes on many. Without the organic relationships that genuine community cultivates, you are left to your own devices, impotent and powerless to realize yourself and the contributions to the larger world you have to offer.

So this longing for community remains. Is it possible to say something honest about what genuine community is? Is it possible to appreciate the nature of genuine community with all its challenges, paradoxes and blessings?

Living a Zen-inspired life helps you embrace paradox as part of life. Your conditioning has taught you to frame your life in dualistic terms such as self versus other, individual versus community, success versus failure. But there is a deeper truth wanting full expression in your life that invites you to embrace the tension of opposites as a path to a more creative and effective life.

The paradox of personal and communal space is alive in all communities. The more involved you become in a community the more important it is to define your personal boundaries. Healthy communities are able to respect this kind of boundary in all of their members. If they do not, chances are the pressures for group conformity will poison the health of the community.

In any real community you're going to rub elbows with people you might not choose to be with normally.  Community isn't like joining the gym or local country club. Parker Palmer, who has written with great insight about community says, "In fact, we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with always lives!" And yet, this diversity is really the crown jewel for identifying genuine community.

Community can be unsettling when shadow issues arise. In the Peacemaker Community, which June and I were involved with, we used the term "turning into the skid". This referred to the practice of opening to shadow issues once they had emerged in the collective. There is a strong tendency to dampen these down and avoid them, just as we avoid our own personal shadows. So an element of bravery is required to grow and sustain a genuine community.

Community calls forth commitment from you. Again Parker Palmer writes, "... community comes as a by-product of commitment and struggle. It comes when we step forward to right some wrong, to heal some hurt, to give some service. Then we discover each other as allies in resisting the diminishments of life." Community arises when you share a common mission that calls you to be not just a consumer, but a citizen in full interdependence with others.

And finally there remains the most profound paradox of all, the tension between solitude and fellowship. Ironically, your fear of yourself may be one of the greatest obstacles to belonging with others because community is going to require that you know yourself in solitude even as you join together with others in fellowship. Perhaps this is the hidden blessing that the paradox of community promises–that you find your true self by joining with others in a larger purpose.

Jesus said, "He who seeks his life will lose it, and he who loses his life . . . will find it." (Matthew 10:39)

Robert Althouse