My neighbor is my friend, and I’m his friend. Community isn’t transactional: it’s a feeling, a sense of belonging and groundedness that’s based on trust, caring, empathy, and, when push comes to shove, being there for others.
Building community helps build my writing business too, not because I help other writers in order to gain something from them, such as client referrals, but because I genuinely care for their well-being. I tell them so, but I do far more than just tell them so. I show up. I pick up the phone and call them. I celebrate their success, and help pull them out of challenging situations with their editors and clients. I spend time each week with other writers over coffee or lunch or a beer, listening to how they’re doing and sharing my own struggles professionally and personally. Again, community is about people deciding to be there for each other.
Building community is simple. We do so by creating safe spaces, what psychologists call “emotional safety,” for others to be wholly themselves, to express their feelings, ideas, and identities, to share their struggles and mistakes. When everyone is calling each other “a rock star,” or “a superstar,” I know I'm not observing real community. In real communities, folks can safely express their struggles, their fears, and their inadequacies, alongside their dreams of stardom. One of the ways I build real community is by talking about my own failures, my experiences with mental illness, my constant efforts to grow and restore and grow again. If I’m not sharing these struggles, I’m not being real with myself or with others.
And by being real, I model psychological safety, opening the door for others to enter as themselves in all their glorious and beautiful complexity. By the way, I find engaging in community to be joyous and funny and enlarging. In real community, there’s laughter, there’s crying (sometimes with laughter, sometimes in catharsis from suffering), there’s silliness, and an appreciation of differences (of opinion, of identity, of being).
You don’t build community by impressing people with your financial success and overall sense of contentment with the world. Sometimes the most meaningful thing you can do is sit silently with another who is suffering, offering your presence as a way of saying “you are not this mistake, this failure, this present anxiety, and you are not alone.” Sometimes we don’t need “easy advice” (you’ll get over it, move on, forget it, nobody cares, it’s not your fault, screw the bastards), but what we need most is each other, the simple act of community, which can also be a profound act of love.
I’ve suffered from social anxiety most of my life, and have been hospitalized because of it, so I find it supremely ironic that the most effective restorative practice in my life is engaging in community, reaching out to others with a sense of trust and caring. Of course, I meditate, exercise, listen to music, write, and have multiple other daily restorative practices. But is it is by engaging in community that I’ve found the most joy and growth and calm. I’ve found that I’m not alone in my suffering, and that my suffering can serve others, offering them space to express their own struggles. I never expected this, and am still trying to embrace the joy and possibility community has offered me.
Community is therapeutic -- I have found that it stops my wandering mind, a mind that can be filled with self-loathing and harmful thoughts aimed at my own being. I have also discovered an unexpected skill at initiating with others and building communities of trust and caring around me. It is only in the last five years or so, due to the stellar examples of other community-builders I've had the pleasure of observing, that I’ve viewed myself as someone with the capacity to build community.
I don’t view community as just a place or a feeling, but as a restorative and therapeutic practice too. And it’s a practice we can strengthen every day by seeing people in all their complicated humanity (including ourselves, by the way), connecting our struggles and joys with theirs, and communicating about the joy and suffering that makes us all messily, joyously human. By doing so, we become more human and we build communities that support us in being more fully human.