Tribes exist when people share a heritage.
Religions exist when people share belief stories.
Communities exist when people share priorities.
Through most of human history, we have lived in groups where all these three were shared — heritage, belief, and priorities. We had common ancestors, common beliefs and common goals. In fact, those common beliefs often consolidated the solidarity of our group by teaching us that we were the chosen people and others were wrong and evil, creating the unity of fear and hate.
Today, though with instant communications and almost instant transportation, it’s very rare that we feel this real connection to the tribe, the religion and the community of someone else we meet. However much we crave being included, as a member of a group, that connection seems to elude us.
Humans are mostly the same. That’s why our perception system is optimized not for seeing sameness, but for difference. It’s no good to say that someone has two legs, five fingers and one nose — that hardly communicates much. The only absolutely true statement may be “all is nothing, nothing is all,” but that hardly starts a useful conversation. Instead we learn early to identify not where we are the same, but to identify where we are different, and to assume that when we don’t see difference that none exists.
The problem with finding difference is that while it is fun and easy to pick apart the subtle differences between people, it never builds commonality. The problem with assuming sameness is that it never builds commonality either, because it substitutes comfortable projections that erase real differences and real connections.
We have trouble finding common ground when all we see is difference, and we have trouble respecting difference when all we do is project sameness.
For many of us, though, our own difference from “them” is at the basis of our belief stories. “I may not be able to tell you who I am, but I can tell you one thing: I am not like them!” We don’t create a positive identity for ourselves, based on who we know ourselves to be, but rather a negative one, based on who we know we aren’t.
When many people walk into a room, they often ask, “How are these people not like me?” which leads to the next question, “How do I have to keep myself separate from these people?”
The flip side of this approach is the projection of false sameness. We walk into a room and assume that everyone not only is like us, but that they are just like us. We wonder why they get frustrated with us, saying we aren’t listening to them, not respecting them. We get frustrated when they won’t agree with us, because they are just like us. We finally realize how different they are, we feel betrayed and deceived, and we wonder how they were allowed in this space for people just like us.
Neither of these approaches are the basis of healthy community. Community demands that we honor diversity while seeking commonality. If you project you can’t honor diversity, and if you fear or disdain, you can’t seek commonality.
I guarantee you that if you look closely enough at any human, at their tribe and belief stories and who they are in community with, you will find a good reason that you don’t want to be like them. No human tribe, no human religion, no human community and no human is perfect — they are all, as you are, human. They learn though mistakes, often very big mistakes, they cling to what makes them comfortable, they act out of fear and pain.
Can we walk into a room full of very imperfect humans committed to work to discover “What can these people teach me about finding community?” That may sound simple, but to do that we have to face our own pain and fears, we have to face our own assumptions and expectations. We look for protecting ourselves against the cuts people like them have made on us in the past, against when they try to separate from us, slicing us away and wounding our heart. We look for protecting ourselves from their attitudes and judgments, the ones that have kept us crucified all our lives.
Unfortunately, the lessons of heritage and belief are lessons that are designed to sabotage community rather than enable it. We build life myths that enforce boundaries rather than build bridges. We build walls designed to bolster a shared identity by making sure we know that we are not like “them” that we are never like “them.”
To build a community, we have to focus on the priorities we share, rather than on what divides us. To do that, we have to be able to face challenges to the lessons of belief that we have built up, have to be willing to make change in ourselves rather than just demand change in others.
For many people, who want to see communities as places for projecting common belief and behavior, rather than for common priorities, this can be very hard. They want community to be a stick to get others to conform, denying community to others they see as traitors, believing that identity politics must be the core of community, enforcing norms. It is these people who give community a bad name.
Are you ready for community? Are you ready to come with a clear positive sense of who you are, rather than needing just to declare who you aren’t? Are you ready to look for common ground rather than why others should be kept away as “them?” Are you ready to be willing to change as you see reflections of your heritage, your life, your beliefs and your priorities in the diversity of others?
Community demands intimacy, the sharing of truths. If you hold that “they” are so different that “they” will never understand your truths, or worse, if you hold that you have no need to understand the truths of another, then no matter how much you may want it and how much you may need it, you are not ready for community.
Community is, by its very existence, a transformative process. It creates connection by forging or revealing commonalities in the face of differences. When we are unwilling or unable to be transformed, to face those real differences and real commonalities, community will elude us.
Like all transformation, being in community offers us mirrors that reflect essence, an essence that may challenge who we wish to be, that may challenge the kind of world we think would be most comfortable. The one thing God never promised, though, is comfort. Only life is promised, and life is transformation, no matter how much we want to stay comfortable. It is in our discomfort that we find what is real and what is false, about our beliefs and about our soul.
Are you ready for community?
Are you ready to be open enough to others so that seeing yourself though their eyes will transform you? Or do you need to only see your own comforting projections in them, projections of sameness which erase challenge, or projections of difference which allow you to dismiss them?
To open your heart is to be open to God’s revelation, the shock of seeing oneself and knowing you are not who you wish to be but who you are. You will see where you are blocked from growth and change; see where your ego tries to keep you comfortable and defended rather than open and loving. And for most people, the scariest thing they will see is not that they are messed up and in pain, but rather that they are more powerful than is comfortable for them, more full of potential and grace.
Deep community, like any other sharing, calls us to be deeply ourselves, beyond identity props, facing the common humanity that lives in every soul.
Are you ready for community? Are you ready to move past assumptions of difference or assumptions of sameness to face other humans with an open heart? Are you ready to be open and visible, ready to see with wide and loving eyes?
Are you ready to be transformed?
A self-described power-femme drag-mom trans-theologian who finds it very hard to practice what she preaches, Callan Williams is a native Canadian who graduated from high school in Massachusetts and loves Western swing and Latin music, show tunes and cabaret. She blogs at https://callan.wordpress.com