It’s both easy and correct, especially nowadays, to say we need community…but easier said than done.
As far as how the mind operates, “the givens” are: meaning comes from feeling, not from facts, and The Familiar is a strong force in human behavior.
So we must be precise in where we begin considering how to satisfy the high goal of creating community. I believe we must start by addressing the question,
What do you need to BE to create community?
Task One: Imagining “The Other”
Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, we are now all interconnected—in hope and in hate. As a result, now, more than ever, we must “imagine the other” – others who are not necessarily our good friends or even share our interests. This takes imagination; a way of thinking and feeling that goes beyond the old paradigms of politics, policies and lexicons regarding communality, with their assumptions of rational actors. Humans are pattern makers, symbol makers, narrative makers, and everything we mentally construct is driven by the non-linear, emotionally-based processes of mind.
The fact is—whether the venue is international relations or interpersonal relations—people are now exposed to a great number of channels and messages, including hearsay and propaganda. All inputs that get through the initial gatekeeper of “personal relevancy” are put through a Cuisinart-like cognitive process wherein ingredients are modified by the receiver’s preexisting beliefs and current emotions.
The problem is: information and rationality are puny in the face of belief. The mind evolved to act, not to think. And for the sake of speed, we humans can too quickly and easily default into “not-community.” To obviate this kind of response requires courage to deal with one’s fear of the unfamiliar. Mundane examples can reference how PC-users v. Mac-users, and how Starbucks loyalists v. Dunkin Donuts loyalists, perceive themselves as coming from different tribes who are not alike and don’t like each other.
Community’s core task is not persuasion, but evoking the bond of identification in the service of people’s desire for self-expansion. People—all people—possess a story about themselves that they tell to themselves, involving aspects of their lives that are latent and not yet fully constituted. If we can show that we understand ‘The Other’ and the stories they have about themselves, peoples’ attachment to and regard for us will grow. This kind of connection can only be achieved if we relate to “The Other” in terms of the paradoxes, existential dilemmas, core narratives and self-images that are the most important aspects in all our lives.
People crave the respect and satisfaction that only comes when they feel their identities—more than their interests—are understood and valued. In turn, the power to influence others emanates from displaying understanding, insightful empathy, and inclusive leadership—not a recitation of the merits of one’s position or point of view. Everyone must not assume that other people are just a mirror image of themselves. That would be a failure of imagination.
Task Two: Community Comes From Difference, Not Just Commonality
An assumption contained in virtually all marketing, political and public policy narratives is that community is gained exclusively through a focus on commonalities, the current overlap we have with others through heritage and circumstance. This assumption is not exactly true.
Yes, commonalities are important in the beginning of a conversation or a relationship. But to carry through to the experience of community, difference is required.
Commonality – or sameness – simply maintains the status quo. To go a step further to community necessitates people uncovering and considering their differences.
The exploration of difference challenges our “closed reel” of how we perceive our world and the world. This challenge between people from different universes can provoke a mutual self-expansion arrived at through the circuitous route of trust, doubt, exploration, hesitancy, surprise, and openness. This requires going beyond one’s habitual and stereotypical comfort zone; this, in turn, requires sensuality, curiosity, and narrative-making through the construction of metaphor and linking the underlying similarities of contradictory ideas. Think of Spielberg’s E.T. When people expand their familiar such that they have a new and bigger idea of themselves and their world, they instinctually feel vital and in communion with life. This mutual self-expansion via “The Other” is the bedrock of a felt sense of communality. A vital life vitalizes everything around it.
Sameness can elicit the beginning of an approach to other people. Difference gets you to something more authentic and intimate and wider.
Task Three: Remembering The Universal Underpinnings to Community
Creating community is a noble, but tall, order. The task, though, gains buoyancy from our human, primal longings. Everywhere I have traveled across the globe over the last three decades – from New York to New Guinea — I have heard people state or imply a similar personal yearning: To BE good (in what they do and are), to live a slower pace (even when they also say they like the speed of today’s existence), to live in a less crowded space (crowded either literally or metaphorically), and to live in terms of sociability (a less impersonal context).
Creating community calls for mature minds: The ability to transcend our identity without negating our identity. A bold endeavor, but we have no choice.
Attention must be paid.