* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Six Things Your Community Could Be Providing

We've taken a look at the necessary ingredients for meaningful, authentic community. Now, we return to the big questions we hope such a community might help us answer.
  1. How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
  2. What am I passionate about? What personal life dream of mine creates greater wholeness in the world?
  3. Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 
  4. What fears get in my way? How can I dismantle those fears and understand what I actually want?
  5. How can I get what I most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness?
Specifically, let's look at the intersection of questions 1, 2, and 5. We've already dismantled the criticism that these questions are selfish. We know that we may have to do a bit of introspection and self-examination to determine meaningful answers to these questions, and that can seem like hard work. On the other hand, these questions are all interconnected, so it's likely that the answers are connected too.

Chances are that we are already engaged in community in some way. Human beings are relational, so it's an intrinsic part of being human to form community. Sometimes, the communities we find ourselves in are by happenstance, and sometimes our participation in them is a conscious decision. Whatever the case, we can choose to be more intentional in how we show up in those communities. This involves knowing ourselves well enough to understand what moves us toward wholeness, and it involves giving ourselves permission to do those things.

Knowing ourselves well enough to understand what moves us toward wholeness is a fancy way of saying understanding what we really want. We have to get past our anxiety in order to know this. When we're anxious, what we want in the immediate sense is for the anxiety to go away. If we can't manage our anxiety well, our autopilot reactions will make decisions for us. We can't get what we most deeply want unless we shift into a more intentional way of choosing our responses. 

Sometimes our anxiety is specifically about what we want. We believe that we have to want something noble or grandiose or selfless in order to be "good" people. Or we tell ourselves that we don't deserve what we want, or that we haven't earned it. And we usually don't have a very reasonable sense of what it would take for us to deserve or earn what we most deeply want. Sometimes we even justify not tending to our own needs because we are waiting on a supernatural to arrange our lives differently. And these are just a handful of the nearly infinite roadblocks we put in our own paths. 

The first hurdle, then, is recognizing that what we most deeply want is important. When we understand our personal guiding principles -- our internal guidance system -- and can connect what we want with our deepest values, this hurdle becomes easier to cross. Knowing the principles by which we want our lives to be governed gives us a solid foundation for determining whether we are identifying what we deeply want or we are instead just coming up with the most expedient way to make our anxiety go away. 

Our guiding principles also give us a way to cast vision in our lives, to imagine what a best possible version of ourselves might look like. This vision is, essentially, a way of identifying what we most deeply want. When we engage our imaginations, we can ask ourselves: What would I look like if I were in complete integrity with my guiding principles? The answer to that question is a vision toward which we can orient our decisions -- and something with which we can realign ourselves when we get off course. And we know when we are off course by recognizing when we are reacting out of anxiety rather than making intentional choices.

Orienting around our guiding principles may give the impression that what we most deeply want needs to be lofty and demanding. This is not necessarily so. Most often, what we most deeply want is not so different from what everybody most deeply wants. We just put a lot of obstacles in our own way, including believing that what we want has to fall into neat categories of either "shamefully selfish" or "impressively selfless". The truth is that what we most deeply want is probably rather simple, and our deepest wants probably help meet other people's needs too.

If what we most deeply want is a sense of belonging, for instance, the healthy community we create from that desire is going to benefit others as much as it benefits us. Rather than judging what we are passionate about, then, we have the potential to connect what we are passionate about with our deepest values and make intentional decisions in our lives. We can create community around anything, provided it aligns with our life-affirming guiding principles. 

(I'll reiterate here what I've said elsewhere: If you think your guiding principles aren't life-affirming, you haven't uncovered your actual guiding principles yet. You may have uncovered a fear you didn't know about, but our deepest values are not built on fear. Don't make excuses or feel ashamed when you get to this point, just be honest about the fear and keep searching for the deeper life-affirming values that it's covering up.)

Being honest about what is fulfilling to us -- and being sharp about distinguishing what we most deeply want from our anxious reactivity -- gives us a way toward creating greater wholeness for ourselves and for the world around us. When we engage in any community intentionally, we have the opportunity to develop deeper understanding of ourselves, more meaningful connection with the people around us, and a greater sense of purpose. Meaningful, authentic community inspires our creativity and provides us with accountability so we can stay aligned with our deepest values more consistently. 

The surface level activities of the community don't really matter (provided they're aligned with your life-affirming values). Bowling league, neighborhood parenting co-op, book club, activist organization, community garden, artist collective, whatever. We can be intentional about how we show up in any community, ensuring that our authentic needs are met in legitimate ways and simultaneously contributing toward wholeness in the lives of others. 

If you want a way to consider the strengths and growth edges of your particular community, some research by a couple of students at Harvard suggest six categories of human need that are met by authentic, meaningful community. You can read about their observations of various secular communities at www.howwegather.org. Their evaluation includes some theistic language, but it's easily ignored or translated. I just mentioned the six categories a couple of paragraphs back, but I'll list them again. If your community does one or more of these things well, that's something to celebrate. If it has challenges with one or more of these areas, that may be something you want to build up.

First, community provides for a basic human need in and of itself. Making sure the community has integrity -- that it is meaningful and authentic, as we've discussed over several entries -- is important. Belonging is important for human beings, but building community with a clear identity in which people are genuinely welcomed and accepted can be challenging.

Second, meaningful authentic community gives people opportunities for personal transformation. When we feel safe and can be honest about our deepest values, community can help us align our lives better. We can grow in our personal integrity and authenticity. 

Third, meaningful authentic community give people opportunities for social transformation. This means, we develop more mature and intentional ways of engaging in the world around us. We become more aware of how we can contribute to greater wholeness in the world.

Fourth, meaningful authentic community helps us identify a sense of purpose. Life doesn't have a larger purpose, but human beings are meaning makers -- we determine what will give us a sense of purpose. Even though defining purpose comes from within ourselves, being in community can inform that journey. 

Fifth, meaningful authentic community engages our creativity. Human beings are, by nature, creators. This doesn't mean we are all artistic, but rather that we all have the ability to contribute to creating something new. Community can provide us with collaborators and inspiration.

Finally, meaningful authentic community provides us with accountability -- people who will pay attention to what we say we want in our lives and will keep us encouraged and empowered to take the next steps in that journey. When we set public goals, healthy communities will hold us to those goals until we redefine them. People who care about us, care about what we want for our lives.

If we understand our personal guiding principles, we can identify our deepest wants and needs more easily. Any community can become a place where we engage in having our personal needs met while we contribute toward greater wholeness in the lives of others. Every community can probably become better at the mutual practices of self-disclosure, active and unconditional love, hospitality, truth-telling, and celebration. Every community can probably become better at setting healthy boundaries and clarifying shared purpose or vision. And every community can be evaluated by how well it provides a genuine sense of belonging, opportunities for personal transformation, social transformation, defining purpose, engaging creativity, and offering accountability.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Community and Purpose

There are lots of different kinds of communities that meet different needs for people. We've been exploring what intentional components contribute to meaningful, authentic community. Mutual self-disclosure, active and unconditional love, hospitality, truth-telling, and sincere affirmation work together to meet people's needs. In other words, people need a place where they can:
  • know others deeply and be known deeply by others,
  • love others and be loved by others,
  • serve others and be served by others,
  • hear others and be heard by others,
  • celebrate others and be celebrated by others.
Healthy boundaries, on the part of the community itself and on the part of its members, make the community a safer environment for all of these intentional practices. The last necessary piece we need to acknowledge is purpose. When a community lacks a sense of shared purpose, it's more difficult for people to feel a sense of belonging. 

A purpose can be a restatement of shared values. A community's purpose may be to promote a specific value (or set of values) in the world. In many cases, it would still be helpful to clarify how the community intends to promote those values. A community can value the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but it's even more clear when that community says, "We're going to honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person by ending homelessness in our region." That's a clear, audacious purpose that can give people who align with that vision a sense of belonging. 

If someone comes into that community and says, "I care about organic farming," they may not be strongly aligned with the shared purpose of the community. They might not feel like they belong in a community united around a purpose of ending homelessness. This is OK. That individual can decide whether they want to buy into the shared purpose of the community or whether they want to find meaningful, authentic community elsewhere. The community doesn't need to launch an organic farming program. This would potentially compromise the sense of belonging and shared purpose it has already cultivated. Unless organic farming clearly ties in with ending homelessness (and there may be a way that it does), the community can say no to focusing on organic farming. Members of the community already have a clear focus that defines what they want to do in the world.

Some communities have a clear focus that doesn't create greater wholeness in the world. Having a shared purpose still contributes to a sense of belonging for members of those communities. The KKK may not meet the criteria of our five essential ingredients, but their sense of shared values and purpose is undeniable. It's the clarity of the KKK's identity that makes it possible (and just and compassionate) to oppose the organization. Yet, the KKK still exists today because our society doesn't equip people to manage their anxiety and dismantle their irrational fears. When people find groups that legitimize their anxiety and fear, they feel accepted. They feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. They feel a sense of safety in the midst of a world that is hostile to their perspective. Fundamentalist religious groups offer the same thing. They reinforce people's anxieties and fears in order to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. 

This is one reason the conversations about essential ingredients for meaningful, authentic community happened before the conversation about clear shared purpose. If you get a sense of belonging from a community because they seem to be anxious about the same things you're anxious about and they seem to fear the same people you fear, run for the door. A shared purpose that fails to create greater wholeness in the world is not a purpose that will ultimately serve you or anyone else. This is not to say that every organization that claims to create greater wholeness is legitimately beneficial, but a purpose that doesn't clearly lead to greater wholeness is not a worthwhile purpose. 

A community's purpose can only be evaluated if it's clear. I once heard a community leader speak at a fund raiser and say, "This organization has done great things in the past, and it was because of your contributions. I don't know what we're going to do next, but whatever it is, it will be because of your support." Not a very inspiring sense of purpose. This organization may have a set of values that a lot of people agree with, but without a clear statement of shared purpose, all the members of that community can run off in different directions doing what they think will support their shared values. And none of them are likely to be as effective as an organization that unifies people around a clear vision. 

Some communities care a great deal about inclusion. This is a wonderful and praiseworthy value, but it cannot be a community's purpose. A clear purpose is actually a specific kind of healthy boundary for a community. Including everyone isn't possible within the context of a clear purpose, because everyone doesn't hold the same values or passions. At best, a community can be inclusive of every person who aligns with the clear shared purpose of the community. But a single community's purpose cannot accommodate every person who walks in the door with a personal agenda. This winds up creating a sense of belonging for nobody.

Imagine a mosque attempting to be inclusive by serving communion for the sake of a Christian couple that wanted to start attending. That mosque would fail at its purpose of creating Muslim community. It would alienate the majority of its members. It probably would not provide the same caliber of communion experience that a Christian community would provide. It would compromise its clear shared purpose (unless that clear shared purpose was to become a more Christian community). And it would probably fail in its ability to set healthy boundaries. Now, hopefully the community of Muslims that gather at that mosque have a greater shared purpose than simply to gather together and be Muslim. Hopefully, they have a sense of how they want to engage in the larger community to live out their Muslim values in a way that creates greater wholeness. That shared purpose probably does not need to include serving communion, no matter how lovely or insistent that Christian couple may be. Inclusion has its limits, and those limits are set by the clear shared purpose of a community.

Within the boundaries of a clear shared purpose, of course, inclusion can be a powerful value a community holds. True inclusion is a lot of work, though. It often requires a lot of time and energy, and it often means being hyper-conscious of socially accepted metaphors and practices. A group of people recently became offended because the metaphor of walking was used throughout an event. They claimed that this metaphor was a repeated act of verbal violence toward people who use other forms of mobility. This presents a real problem when commonly used phrases or familiar songs (with no intent of excluding anyone from their message) use a metaphor of walking. Being inclusive sometimes means creating new language, and this new language can sound stilted at first. Unless the shared purpose of a community clearly connects with creating new language so that everyone is included in the words used by the community, this call for inclusion can be a hindrance to the community. If an entire community is able to align with the need for new language, however, it can be a powerful unifying and strengthening factor.

Claims of verbal violence and calls for greater inclusion often fail to take a community's purpose into consideration, however. Angrily insisting that a community accommodate one's personal values is not necessarily the most self-differentiated approach. If you want to be part of a community, and you feel in some way ostracized, the very best approach would seem to be connecting the practices of a community to its clearly stated purpose. Even if a community values the inherent worth and dignity of every person, if its clearly stated purpose is to honor the human value of people around them by distributing shoes, it isn't really appropriate to insist they also build houses, even if building houses would also align with the community's values. If that community is failing to distribute shoes effectively, though, or if its distribution seems to repeatedly avoid a certain neighborhood, there's a clear line of connection to follow. When inclusion clearly connects to a community's shared purpose, it's hard to argue with. 

Personally, I find it difficult to be in communities with religious identities. Songs that praise or petition a supernatural are antithetical to my personal beliefs. Public prayers rarely call upon the strength and capability of human beings, but rather ask an external deity to provide things for people. Speeches or sermons often proclaim things like, "It's all part of God's plan," or, "God is in control." I feel like an outsider in the presence of those songs or prayers or speeches. I can choose to be personally offended, or I can look to the clear purpose of the community. If a community's practices are clearly in alignment with its identity and purpose, then I really have nothing to complain about. I simply won't feel a sense of belonging in that community, because my personal identity and values are different from what the community promotes. 

If the community's practices seem not to be aligned with its clearly stated purpose, however, then I have a reason to speak up. It's often the case that a community and its leaders are unconsciously making assumptions that aren't true. If I feel an affinity for the community's purpose and my values and identity align with the community's stated values and identity, it's up to me to point out how the community's unintentionally exclusionary practices can shift to include my perspective while remaining clearly aligned with the community's shared purpose. When a community lacks a clear purpose, it's much easier for me to feel angry, offended, and alienated, especially if community leaders express a value of inclusion or claim to be welcoming to all people. At the same time, I don't believe that I should be made welcome by every community I might visit. Some communities have a purpose I don't share and don't have any interest in sharing. Neither I nor the community need to change. We all just need to be honest about what we are choosing to make our lives about.

Just as all of us need a clear sense of purpose to make our lives meaningful, communities need a clear shared purpose. The clearer and more specific the purpose, the more confident people will be in their sense of belonging. The more confident people are in their sense of belonging, the more easily they will participate in the mutual ingredients that make community healthy, authentic, and meaningful for everyone. The more vague a community's purpose, the more tentative people will be in their sense of belonging, and the more likely they will be to feel anger, hurt, or sadness when the community fails to meet their personal expectations. Lacking a clear purpose that's shared by its members means a community will have greater challenges in creating safe space for people to practice those five essential ingredients. It's better for people to leave with a clear understanding of how their personal identity doesn't mesh with the community's identity, even if this means that a community remains small. A community serves its current and future members best by having a clear purpose that all its members can share.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Basics of Boundaries

A lot of communities are familiar with boundaries. Boundaries are often used to define who is an insider and who is an outsider. Religious communities often use belief as a boundary. (Members of this community believe in X, Y, or Z, and if you don't believe in X, Y, or Z, you can't be a member of this community.) Some communities use behavior as a boundary. (Members of this behavior abstain from alcohol, or pray at certain times of the day, or wear special clothing, and if you don't do these things, you can't be a member of the community.)

Especially for people whose entire social circle is comprised of a single community, these rules and restrictions are a means of controlling people. Stepping out of bounds can mean being ostracized or disowned. This sort of boundary is harmful when shame, rejection, and condemnation are used as enforcement. The message from many religious communities is that certain people are unacceptable, unlovable, or unworthy because they don't fit within the community boundaries. In many cases, boundaries become walls, shutting people out of community, imprisoning people in relationships, or preventing safe self-disclosure, honesty, and affirmation.

Healthy communities, on the other hand, set boundaries based on what behaviors align with the shared values of the community. A healthy community doesn't need to distinguish between insider and outsider, because the community's commonly held guiding principles and shared purpose are clearly defined. Rather than controlling people's behavior, healthy boundaries are collaboratively defined practices that reflect the community's values.

For instance, if a community has decided to practice mutual affirmation, self-disclosure, hospitality, active and unconditional love, and honesty, they may agree that some behaviors reinforce those values and some behaviors run counter to those values. Let's say, for instance, that a community recognizes that gossiping about someone isn't congruent with those five characteristics, but that it reflects those values to speak honestly, directly, and respectfully to a person when there's conflict. The boundary for the community, then, is that communication within the community reflects the community's shared values.

If Alex goes to Bethany to complain about something Charlotte said, that doesn't mean Alex should get kicked out of the community or shamed. It does mean that Bethany has an opportunity to help Alex make a course correction and realign with communication that reflects the high aspirations of the community. Bethany could do this in a variety of ways. She could guide Alex toward speaking directly, honestly, and respectfully with Charlotte -- or even offer to go with Alex if the conversation seems challenging. She could also help Alex empathize with Charlotte. Remaining detached from Alex's anxiety might be challenging for Bethany, and she may be tempted to take sides or spread further gossip about Charlotte (or Alex). Having clear boundaries in the community and giving everyone responsibility for upholding those boundaries will hopefully make it clear to Bethany how she can respond more intentionally.

This is an important point, because many communities have specialized people who are boundary enforcers. If you have a problem with someone, you go to the boundary enforcer and file a complaint, the boundary enforcer looks into the situation and decides if a boundary has been crossed, and then (ideally) a system of justice is activated to provide just consequences. This system lets most people off the hook for enforcing community boundaries. In a large society, this has some benefits. Our national justice system is severely flawed, but it's at least an improvement on vigilante justice or the escalations of retributive violence that happen in some cultures. In smaller communities, though, people can collaborate to create community boundaries that reflect their shared values, and everyone can be equally responsible for enforcing those boundaries by their own intentional behavior. Bethany doesn't need to go running to a community elder to inform on Alex. She's capable of being intentional in her own behavior when Alex's anxiety gets activated.

Each community has to determine for itself what level of boundary-crossing warrants greater attention. There are times when people may be resistant to correction when they are acting in violation of a community's shared boundaries. People can engage in conflict when they are anxious; fear prompts defiance in some folks. It's important for a community to know how it will respond to this kind of anxiety or fear in a way that aligns with its guiding principles and values. Community members should know ahead of time what the consequences are for persistent boundary-crossing, and as many members as possible should be empowered to hold one another accountable to the community's shared values and guiding principles.

Boundaries can also help provide a sense of safety in a community. Background checks for people working with children is a boundary. Clear lines of financial accountability may be another community boundary. Sometimes these sorts of boundaries are rooted in fear and anxiety about people. The same boundaries could flow from a community's intentional identity, however. The difference is not necessarily the boundaries themselves, but the foundation on which the boundaries are built. Well-defined community values and shared vision undergird healthy boundaries.

Healthy individuals have boundaries, too. And individual boundaries may not be identical to community boundaries. One person may choose to be vegetarian, while the community as a whole doesn't make such a choice. It's the responsibility of the individual to clearly state their boundaries, and it's the responsibility of the community to respect the boundaries of individuals. Emile has the responsibility to say, "I won't eat the chicken casserole Devon brought to the potluck, because I don't eat meat." No one has to apologize for the presence of a chicken casserole, because vegetarianism isn't a shared value of the community. Likewise, no one in the community gets to force Emile to eat the chicken casserole, or shame or pressure Emile (or Devon). Radical hospitality may prompt someone to take action to make sure Emile has something to eat, but this can be a loving act that respects the boundaries of those present.

Sometimes personal boundaries are the result of false beliefs, and sometimes personal boundaries are inconvenient for a community. Healthy community can recognize these realities and remain respectful of the boundaries that individuals set, as long as the community's shared values and guiding principles aren't compromised. Say a community decides that its shared values are non-theistic -- that as a community they will not promote supernaturalism through any of their common practices. If Gerry prefers to pray before a meal, it's fine for Gerry to pray. It isn't fine for Gerry to insist that everyone else pray. If Gerry wants to listen to overtly theistic music, that's fine. Gerry just doesn't get to require everyone to sing theistic music together.

The same would be true for a theistic community that determines its shared values to include affirming and promoting affection or gratitude toward a supernatural. If this is a shared value of the community, Fabian's personal boundary of refusing to pray doesn't get to define the practices of the entire community. The community's boundaries also don't mean that Fabian can be forced to pray, however. Fabian can choose not to sing the community's theistic songs, but if the community's shared values include gratitude toward a supernatural, Fabian should expect them to sing praises to that supernatural as a community practice.

For some communities, the challenging part is defining these boundaries clearly so that individuals will know whether their personal boundaries will be in conflict with the community's practices. If a community expects everyone to do something, it's best to be honest and direct about that expectation. Too often, communities claim to welcome everyone and fail to provide a clear indication of what they're welcoming everyone into. It doesn't matter to me if a Christian community acts like they welcome me; if they're going to expect me to participate in blatantly Christian activities, I'm not going to feel welcome. I'm not going to feel like a respected, valued, accepted part of a community that expects me to act in opposition to my own personal beliefs. When a community is clear about its boundaries and practices, and an individual is clear about their personal boundaries and practices, people can easily see whether they are a good fit for the community. Hopefully, a community's shared values and guiding principles are directly reflected in their boundaries and practices.
I mentioned that sometimes personal boundaries are the result of false beliefs. As long as those personal boundaries aren't in conflict with the community's boundaries, it's still best to be loving and respectful of those personal boundaries that may be misguided. As a person grows in their ability to practice mutual self-disclosure and honesty, and as a person participates in giving and receiving sincere affirmation and active, unconditional love, their beliefs -- and therefore their boundaries -- may change. People first need to feel safe in community before they can engage in the challenging work of defining personal guiding principles and casting vision in their lives. Respect for their personal boundaries, and clear community boundaries, can help provide that sense of safety.

All of this conversation about boundaries is within the context of a community that is practicing the essential five ingredients we've already explored: mutual self-disclosure, mutual hospitality, mutual active and unconditional love, mutual honesty, and mutual affirmation. Some people may need a lot of help from their community to learn how to establish healthy personal boundaries. Boundaries can also be abused to preserve a community at the expense of the individual, or to create power-over structures rather than power-with systems. This is one reason community boundaries should be collaboratively created by the members of a community, with a clear connection to the shared values and guiding principles of the community. With these elements in place, a community can incorporate one more vital piece to creating greater wholeness in the world: a well-defined shared purpose or vision.

There are several books and web resources that carry this conversation about boundaries deeper, but one of the best is still Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Even though this is touted as a Christian book, Cloud's observations are valid beyond the sphere of Christianity, and his recommendations are easily interpreted into a sound Humanist framework for relationships. He's also released a number of spin-offs that may be helpful to people looking for guidance on setting healthy boundaries in specific relationships.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Community and Affirmation

Even in a community where people are engaging in mutual self-disclosure, mutual hospitality, active and unconditional love, and honesty, there are bound to be challenges. Any time more than one human being is in the same place at the same time, the potential for conflict exists. No matter how loving and honest you're trying to be, there will be times that anxiety wins.

I still have old, well-ingrained habits to defend myself when someone challenges what I say, rather than just accept that they're entitled to their own opinions. Intellectually, I'm all about peaceful disagreement, and in practice I can be in that space most of the time. But when my personal vows get triggered, I go into this zone where I believe I have to prove I'm right in order to be worthy -- I have to defend what I say, because if I'm wrong, I'll be unlovable and unacceptable.

You've got your own set of vows that you made at an early age, in times of high anxiety, when you decided subconsciously what you had to do in order to be safe, accepted, and loved. Everyone does. And when all of those vows bump up against each other, it causes some emotional friction. Healthy community develops appropriate ways of handling that friction, and those healthy practices become part of the community culture. We'll explore those practices in coming weeks.

There's one fifth essential ingredient that plays a part in the health of a meaningful, authentic community. In addition to mutual self-disclosure, mutual hospitality, active and unconditional love, and honesty, meaningful authentic community requires mutual affirmation and celebration. I'm not talking about throwing parties for people, although you could do that. Mutual affirmation or celebration is about acknowledging what's awesome about the people with whom you're in community. This has a few functions for community, and it also has a couple of pitfalls to avoid.

Sincere affirmation is rare. People are constantly being told how they need to improve, or what they need to do differently. Even when it isn't explicit, we compare ourselves to more outwardly attractive, successful, wealthy, happy people and easily focus on what's wrong with us. Few people hear often enough that they are powerful, capable, beautiful human beings. Cultivating a culture of sincere affirmation may seem like overkill, but people need others to accurately reflect their positive attributes back to them.

You may have heard the equation that you have to say six positive things to balance out one negative comment. This means that -- just by the way our brains process things -- if you hear six positive comments about yourself and one negative comment, you'll have a kind of break-even average opinion of who you are. And we hear negative things about ourselves all the time. Sometimes it's specifically about us, and sometimes we personalize negative comments about a whole group of people. If we're in a marginalized group -- immigrants, people of color, atheists, transgender folks, and plenty of others -- we hear a lot more negative commentary about ourselves than positive. That's one big reason meaningful, authentic community needs to practice mutual affirmation and celebration of one another. We need to hear an awful lot of affirmation before we even consider believing it might be true.

In order for people to be meaningfully engaged in community, they have to believe something positive about themselves. If people don't believe they have something of value to offer, they wind up not offering anything of themselves. If people don't believe they can make a meaningful contribution, they wind up not contributing anything. When people believe they have value, they can be more fully engaged in creating wholeness with other human beings. And it takes a lot of reassurance for some people to start believe something positive about themselves. We've become convinced somehow that saying too many positive things is coddling, or that people will become egomaniacs. It's a crappy reason not to say something affirming about a person.

Incidentally, this is why some people find it easier to believe in a supernatural source of love and acceptance. People often do a rotten job of praising one another. Many religions cultivate a perspective that human beings are worthless, weak, and unworthy, and that it takes the perfect benevolence of a superior being to actually love human beings. So, people try to believe that a being who never communicates with them directly and doesn't make itself known in any verifiable way, loves them more than any human being could, and accepts them even though they are thoroughly unacceptable.

All this is great PR for whatever god you credit with being able to love the unlovable, but it perpetuates the view that human beings are essentially unlovable, unacceptable, and unworthy. And it perpetuates the view that human beings are incapable of providing sufficient love, acceptance, and affirmation to one another. This is patently false, and it's a cruel lie to perpetuate about yourself and other people. You are both lovable and capable of love. You are both acceptable and capable of being accepting. You are both worthy and capable of affirming the worthiness of others. This view of humanity -- of yourself -- is essential to meaningful, authentic community.

The reason this view is essential is simple. When we believe lies about our own unworthiness or incapability, we are not our authentic selves. Authentic community can't be built from false selves, and false selves can't persist in authentic community. The way to authenticity isn't to shame people for presenting a false self, though. People have been through enough without someone trying to shame them into being authentic. Sometimes, people just need to see the other side of the coin, and they need to see it presented to them consistently and sincerely. We've been told how worthless or unlovable or unacceptable we are so much that many of us think it's true. We need to be told something different about ourselves so it seems safe to be vulnerable enough to be authentic with a community of equally flawed and beautiful, challenged and capable human beings.

Now, none of this is to say that we should overlook problematic behavior or that we should pretend people's weaknesses don't exist. We all have things we can work on, and we all have growth areas or opportunities for improvement. One of the reasons we appreciate meaningful, authentic community is that we can grow into greater wholeness as individuals -- which we wouldn't need to do if we were perfect. So, healthy community offers feedback that helps people address areas of growth. But it does so in a way that doesn't shame or condemn a person for having things to work on -- or just being imperfect. And some areas of imperfection don't require work -- they're just areas of imperfection.

Holding up a mirror to someone and lovingly showing them where their actions may not be in alignment with their guiding principles is tough. It's also a really important feature of meaningful, authentic community. We need people who are willing to hold us accountable to the things we say we are going to be or do. Accountability isn't me holding you accountable to what I want you to do. When I hold you accountable to your own vision of a best possible version of yourself, though, that has real value to you. It's a lot easier to hear that sort of feedback from someone who habitually offers sincere affirmation. We can be more vulnerable with people we trust to see the best in us. 

You may notice I mentioned sincere affirmation. We still have honesty as a core ingredient, and that honesty still needs to be a part of our affirmation of one another. Saying things that aren't true about a person isn't loving or helpful, even if those things sound positive. Telling a person they're a great musician when they sound like a cat caught in a blender is only going to lead to embarrassment and possibly unnecessary shame down the road. Telling people what's true about them -- over and over again until they believe you -- allows them to see who they are more clearly.

We don't actually see ourselves very clearly. For instance, I'm afraid of being seen as confrontational or abrasive, so if I say or write anything that could be construed as hostile or unkind, I'm super self-conscious about it. When people tell me how tactful I am, I have to check to see whether they're being sarcastic sometimes, because I'm hypersensitive to coming across as confrontational. Now that an awful lot of people have told me numerous times that I'm a tactful person, I'm learning to trust that I can say things hearably, even when I'm saying something challenging to someone. I've been at this for years, and it's taken years of people saying affirming things to get through all the other noise inside my own head -- most of which has been rattling around in there since I was a kid.

A community of people committed to offering honest affirmation of one another -- mutually celebrating each other -- can do a lot to create wholeness. People who aren't as worried about being lovable, acceptable, and worthy are better able to cast a vision of a best possible version of themselves. People who feel safe and acknowledged can live by their deepest values and guiding principles more easily. People can live more fully when mutual affirmation is the cultural habit of a community that also practices mutual self-disclosure, mutual hospitality, active and unconditional love, and honesty.

These five ingredients are not often found all together in communities. Keeping them all in balanced proportions takes intentional effort. Even having all five of these practices in place at all takes some intentional effort. If people are willing to allow these ingredients to define their relationships with one another in meaningful, authentic community, I'm confident that greater wholeness will be the outcome.

There will be challenges, though. While these five ingredients describe the consistent day-in and day-out intentional practices of a community, it's also important for the community to have a couple of pieces of infrastructure. One of these is clear boundaries within the community -- not defining who is an insider and who is an outsider, but defining safe and healthy behavior in the context of the community. Another is a clear shared purpose or vision. As you might imagine, these two topics will be next up on the docket.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Community and Honesty

Honesty is a fourth essential ingredient to meaningful, authentic community. Honesty is obviously necessary for self-disclosure, and honesty works in tandem with active, unconditional love. We should take a look at this in more detail, and we should also consider how truth-telling intersects with hospitality and service to one another.

Some Christians say that Jesus commanded them to "speak the truth in love," even though it may seem rare to see anyone putting that into practice. It was actually a passing comment made by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph 4:15), but it's still a useful idea. Sometimes we get caught up in being loving (or appearing to be loving, or doing what we think is going to make others love or accept us) and we fail to tell the truth. We might lie about who we really are, what we really want or think or need, what we see in other people, or the dynamics we see at work in a system. When we don't tell the truth, we aren't being loving. 

Of course, we can tell the truth in an unloving way, too. We can be so blunt and direct -- and maybe even confrontational -- that the truth we express isn't very well received. Some people even get the cause-and-effect of this twisted around, thinking that their truth-telling gets a bad reaction from people rather than realizing that the way they express the truth has a lot to do with how others react. Even a lovingly-expressed truth can create some anxiety, but speaking truth without regard for a relationship is irresponsible. Actually, our reason for speaking the truth unlovingly is the same as our reason for not speaking the truth at all: fear. Dealing with our fear or anxiety about ourselves or other people is an important step toward speaking the truth hearably and lovingly. Speaking the truth is necessary for meaningful, authentic relationships, and the context of those relationships is active, unconditional love. So the way we speak the truth is as important as being willing to speak the truth.

When we aren't honest, it's always because of anxiety or fear. It may not seem that way, because we're so accustomed to a low-level of chronic anxiety that it feels normal. But when we avoid the truth, it's because we fear the consequences of the truth. We lie because we believe that someone else will react in a way that we won't like. We lie because we have something to lose. Some people are convinced that there's nothing wrong with telling a "white lie" to spare someone's feelings or to avoid a lengthy conversation with a stranger or acquaintance when you just don't have the time to spare. In his little book Lying, Sam Harris makes a compelling argument that it's always unethical or immoral to lie. Either way, lying doesn't create meaningful, authentic community. 

There are all sorts of reasons we might value community enough that we're concerned about how people will react to us, though. If we find something meaningful in community, we don't want to do anything to jeopardize those relationships. That anxiety -- that we have something to lose, and we'd better be careful -- can lead us to believe that telling the truth is dangerous. Yet, we can't have the quality of community we really want and need if we keep things at a polite, surface-level veneer of social falsehoods. Community is most valuable to us when we can practice self-disclosure, and hospitality, and active and unconditional love in a safe environment. Letting our anxiety convince us not to be honest in that community means that we are in some way showing up as a false person -- that we're pretending to be someone different from who we really are -- for the sake of being accepted, or loved, or safe. 

Pretending to be someone different from who you really are doesn't mean adopting a deep cover secret identity. It's simple things that erode our ability to be known and accepted for who we are. We pretend to be someone who likes gazpacho, or someone who is alright with a particular kind of humor, or someone who doesn't mind waiting 15 minutes for folks to arrive for a group activity. We may be none of those things, but we value the sense of community so highly that we feel obligated to make some sacrifices -- to give up part of ourselves -- in order to keep or strengthen that bond. Some people just call that being polite, but let's be clear about all of those times when we hide who we really are: When we hide who we really are, we lie. And when we lie about who are are, we can't be known. It isn't self-disclosure when what we disclose isn't really who we are.

We also can't be as meaningfully served by someone if we aren't honest. Yes, someone can prepare us a meal and we can sincerely appreciate it, even if it isn't our favorite food. But we can also lovingly, gratefully say: "Thank you so much for fixing dinner for me. I usually don't eat meat, but everything else here is delicious." Now, you can say that with a bit of an attitude, or you can be sincere in your gratitude that someone has done something hospitable for you. If you keep that bit of information entirely to yourself -- that you don't eat meat -- you may think you're just being polite, but what happens the next time that person prepares food for you? Do you keep lying? How many meals do you eat before you tell the truth? "Going along to get along" may be easier in some contexts, but it doesn't create meaningful, authentic community.

Serving others is also more meaningful when we're able to be honest. Some people practice "hospitality" with an ulterior motive. "I'll do something nice for this person, and then they'll owe me one. I can butter them up and then ask for this big favor, and they refuse, I can make them feel guilty." This is in no way hospitality. When we're honest with others about what we want and need, and we're honest about our interest in being of service, there's less anxiety in the exchange of hospitality and service. 

In the context of meaningful, authentic community, we find loving ways to be honest. We don't engage in manipulation or playing safe. We stir honesty in equal measure alongside self-disclosure, service, and active and unconditional love. Then, when we serve others, they can legitimately trust the sincerity of our actions without worrying about ulterior motives. (To be clear, other people might suspect that we have ulterior motives when we are hospitable, but our willingness to be transparent and honest can alleviate those suspicions.) And when others serve us, they'll get sincere gratitude from us, and they'll learn more about what we appreciate. They'll learn more about what makes our hearts sing. 

And while we're being honest, keep in mind that doing something that contributes to another person's well-being also does something for you. Research has demonstrated that altruism feels good. Plus, our sense of interconnectedness suggests that when the lives of people around us are moving toward greater wholeness, our own lives are enhanced. So, there's no need to get caught up in puzzling through the selfishness of service. Hospitality is always of mutual benefit, if you're willing to receive those benefits.

Even at a purely selfish level, honesty is the best way for us to get what we want and need. When we play manipulation games with people, we're always hoping people will take hints and read between the lines, or maybe that we can ensnare them in a situation where they feel obligated to give us what we want. The problem is that what we actually want requires us to be vulnerable. Having power over other people is a reaction to fear -- maybe fear that we aren't lovable or acceptable, that we don't matter, that someone is going to take advantage of us, or whatever fear might bubble up for you. 

Persuading or compelling someone to do what we want seems to feel good because it alleviates that anxiety and fear for a moment. But it doesn't convince us that we are lovable or acceptable, or that we matter. It's the "consolation prize" of co-existing with others, when "first prize" is actually knowing that we are lovable, valuable, acceptable, worthy human beings. The best possible outcome is for us to get our legitimate needs met by other people who are willing to acknowledge and address those needs in legitimate ways. And we've seen that there's a mutuality built into that equation, because some of the things we need have to do with what we are able to offer to other people. The best way for people to understand and address one another's needs is for them to be honest about those needs to one another. 

It may feel safer to hide parts of ourselves. It may feel vulnerable to admit that we have needs, or to reveal that we have fears about not being lovable or acceptable or worthy. But everyone wrestles with these issues in one way or another. Being human means having needs and being vulnerable. There's no shame in that. It's just reality. Honesty about that reality is one of the key features that distinguishes meaningful, authentic community from so many of the other ways we try to find community. Rather than giving up who we are in order to have connection with other human beings, we show up as we are -- as our authentic selves. We don't carry around shame about who we are, and we don't make demands for acceptance. 

One person can do this, but it may freak out a lot of people, and it might be a challenge to infuse bold honesty into an anxious system where everyone is pretending to be someone they're not. A handful of people with a commitment to be in more authentic relationship with one another have a better chance of transforming an existing system to a more honest, loving, hospitable community. We'll see later on how honesty about current reality is a necessary part of casting vision for the direction of a community as a whole. For now, it's enough to see that honesty is a necessary component to blend with love, hospitality, and self-disclosure. 

There's one more essential ingredient to meaningful, authentic community: affirmation. So, next time we'll explore the importance of being sincerely celebrated, and sincerely celebrating others.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Community and Active, Unconditional Love

One of the most challenging things about self-disclosure and hospitality is that we have so much fear about our actions being used against us. We've heard horror stories, or we've experienced in our own lives, that sometimes when we share things about ourselves, other people use that information to cause us harm. When we extend hospitality to someone else, sometimes others take advantage. Feeling betrayed is a part of many people's life experience, and this makes trust really difficult.

A community that practices mutual self-disclosure and hospitality addresses some of this threat. If you experience being served by others, it can be easier to serve without fear that others will take advantage of you. If other people are self-disclosing, it can be easier to trust that you won't be betrayed if you share something of yourself. None of this is a guarantee that someone won't take more than they give in a relationship, or betray a confidence out of anxiety. People don't always live in alignment with their deepest values. You and I are included in that. But intentional mutuality helps lessen our fear about being known and serving others.

There is another feature of meaningful, authentic community that figures into this equation, and that is active and unconditional love toward one another. Obviously, this is a mutual thing, too. Active and unconditional love informs why we would choose to know and be known by others -- why we would choose to serve and be served by others. It isn't enough that someone listens to us share something about ourselves, what we hope for is that we'll be understood and accepted. Mutual self-disclosure could still happen in an environment where people heap shame on themselves and one another, and this doesn't really help anybody. What makes a community meaningful is that we have our needs met, and part of what we need is a sense that we are valued and cherished by others. In other words, we need love.

Most of the adoration and value we extend toward other people and receive from others is conditional. We try to earn people's approval, or we make people earn ours. As children, many of us developed a sense of what we had to do or who we had to be in order to earn love and acceptance from others. For some of us, this has meant pretending to be something we're not. We hide our true selves because we believe at some level that who we really are is unacceptable or unlovable, and we show up in a more "worthy" persona that we think will fool people into loving or accepting us. "If they saw who I really am, I'd be rejected, but if they believe the mask I wear, I'll earn love and acceptance."

This impression gets reinforced in communities all the time. As long as you seem to conform to everyone else's beliefs and behaviors, you are given the message that you're acceptable, lovable, righteous, good. But if you veer away from the accepted beliefs and behaviors of the herd, there are consequences. Maybe you are given the message that you're unacceptable. Maybe love is withheld. In many cases, you are no longer treated as an equal participant in that community. In order to get your needs met, you have to do what the community demands. Being valued and loved is contingent upon following the rules -- even if that means pretending to be someone or something you aren't.

Now, healthy communities have boundaries. Behavior that harms people in any way can't be tolerated if a community is to provide safety. Enforcing community boundaries can take a number of forms, though. An anxious reaction to someone violating our boundaries might be to tell them that they are unacceptable -- that the boundary violator is unworthy of love and acceptance. A more intentional response might be to address the offending behavior, so that it becomes a matter of "This behavior is not acceptable" instead of "You are not acceptable." This kind of nuance can be a challenge to master, but it reflects a willingness to distinguish a person from their behavior. People have inherent worth and dignity, and behaviors can change.

It's loving to hold people accountable to a mutually agreed upon set of standards for a community -- a covenant, if you will. Members of a community can decide together, "These are the principles that are going to bind us together, and these are the boundaries that are going to promote us being in alignment with those principles." Then, when someone betrays a confidence or takes advantage of the community's hospitality or violates the community boundaries in some other way, the response can be  more loving toward everyone involved. Instead of a person being unlovable or unacceptable, the issue can clearly be, "This behavior doesn't align with our principles." It's even possible to say, "We love you and care about you, and this behavior isn't compatible with being part of this community."

This really isn't about controlling people's behavior. It's about giving people opportunities to grow into greater emotional maturity. Just about anything a person might do that would violate trust or harm another person is a product of that person's anxiety or emotional immaturity. When our decisions are informed by fears or false beliefs about ourselves or others, we're likely to cause some harm. But we have opportunities to alter our course. We have opportunities to learn and grow and do things differently. We have the potential to clarify our deepest values and guiding principles, and align our actions and beliefs with those values and principles. We have the potential to dismantle our irrational fears and give our word to greater integrity in our lives. We are capable of living into a best possible version of ourselves. Our decision to love others is essentially our willingness to see this same potential, this same capability, in them. So, it isn't about control so much as it is about hope.

At the same time, it's important for people to understand that their behavior has consequences, and that their actions have an effect on other people. None of this is a simple formula. It takes some commitment and some intentional work for a community to consistently focus on people's potential rather than their flaws. Hopefully, a community can establish a sense of active and unconditional love before it becomes necessary to enforce community boundaries. One way this can be done is by responding intentionally to the practices of mutual self-disclosure and mutual hospitality.

Love is apparent when people are accepted as they share who they are. We could respond to self-disclosure by trying to fix people, by judging them, by labeling them, or any number of ways that run contrary to valuing and cherishing a person. When a loving community practices mutual self-disclosure, that self-disclosure is followed by receptivity, acceptance, and validation. There are things that all of us could continue to work on. Validating and accepting where a person is doesn't equate to a declaration that they're done growing. It simply means that they are valued and cherished right where they are in their journey. The reason for growing isn't to gain love and acceptance. The reason for growing is to be more fully alive -- to be more consistently in alignment with a vision of a best possible version of yourself.

Likewise, love is apparent when service is met with gratitude. A community that practices mutual hospitality could come to expect that people will be of service to one another. People's acts of service toward one another may be overlooked or taken for granted if mutual hospitality is habitual for a community. Supplementing this commitment to a mutual sense of welcome with a mutual sense of gratitude and appreciation can foster deeper human connection. When people are willing to express gratitude, even when hospitality is expected, it reinforces a sense of value, care, and love for one another.

Meaningful, authentic community is more than incorporating a set of practices and behaviors into the community's identity. Self-disclosure and hospitality are wonderful, but they aren't enough in and of themselves. We all need to know that we are loved -- that we are cherished and valued. When we don't have this need met by other human beings, we invent sources. We imagine that something outside of ourselves cherishes and values us, even if we don't feel it from other human beings.

Some communities even foster this sense that something supernatural is the source of love. Meaningful, authentic communities recognize the truth that valuing and cherishing people is the responsibility of human beings to one another. We are responsible for expressing love and hope in one another's lives. When we abdicate this human responsibility to something we invent in our imaginations, we rob ourselves and others of full, satisfying human relationship. We miss out on being fully alive and fully human when we pretend that there is some other supernatural source for acceptance, value, and love.

Loving other people isn't safe, and it often isn't easy, but it is the task of human beings in meaningful, authentic community. If we aren't taking this responsibility seriously, we aren't creating authentic community. We're pretending to be less vulnerable and interdependent than we actually are. For this reason, honesty is another key component to meaningful, authentic community. Obviously, we must be honest in our self-disclosure if we expect to be truly known. And as we see here, active and unconditional love requires our honesty in recognizing love as the responsibility of human beings. We'll explore honesty further next week as we continue to consider the essential ingredients to meaningful, authentic community.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Community and Hospitality

When we cross the threshold of vulnerability and allow another person to know us more deeply, we are conveying a certain amount of trust that the other person will treat that knowledge with some respect. If they were to use what they know about us to hurt us, it would be more difficult for us to feel safe in community with that person. This is one reason mutual self-disclosure is important -- so that there isn't a power differential where one side is entrusted with information without having to risk the same level of vulnerability.

Self-disclosure actually meets a need, though. We don't just reveal our true selves to people for the sake of building trust and realizing our capacity for vulnerability. We want and need to be known by others, even as we fear that we are unacceptable, unlovable, or unworthy of being known. Mutual self-disclosure directly confronts the fears that we have about ourselves by giving us a chance to be loved and accepted for who we really are, in community with other people who wrestle with their own fears and challenges.

How we respond to knowing others and being known by others matters a great deal. We are best able to create meaningful, authentic community when our response to knowing others and being known by others leads toward greater wholeness. One way a community creates wholeness is by mutual service toward one another. Another way of saying this is that a community creates wholeness through a culture of hospitality. When our response to knowing others more deeply is to seek ways to be of service to them, we create greater wholeness in their lives and in our own. And when our response to others knowing us more deeply is to be open to how they want to be of service to us, we allow greater wholeness in our own lives, as well as theirs. In fact, if we care about creating a more just, equitable, compassionate world, we want our lives to be about hospitality and service. Community can provide a space for us to practice being the kind of people we want to be in the world.

Different people have different challenges with the idea of mutual hospitality. It's probably helpful to start by defining what we mean by service in this context. Keep in mind that we are talking about an environment of mutual self-disclosure, so we're assuming a community in which people are not trying to take advantage of one another, but are aiming for authenticity. Manipulating or persuading others is an anxious behavior. So is trying to fix or control other people, even if it's "for their own good." We'll see in a couple of weeks that honesty is another key component to healthy community. For now, it suffices to be clear that we're talking about an environment where people are striving for intentional relationships and not anxiety-driven relationships, and we're assuming that people are learning to hold one another accountable to that aim.

Like self-disclosure, hospitality contributes to meaningful, authentic community when it's a mutual thing. When service is lopsided in a community or in a relationship, it causes problems. One person's needs in a community are not more important than another person's, even though there may be times when one person has more urgent needs than the other. Being of service to another person doesn't mean fixing their problems or telling them what they should do. And allowing another person to be of service to you doesn't mean you give up personal responsibility for your own behavior and decisions. Instead, hospitality is about caring for another person's well-being without compromising your own -- making choices to be compassionate rather than taking care of an issue out of anxiety.

Mutual hospitality in a community means that we can confidently care for others while trusting that other people will care for our well-being too. This may be simple acts of kindness that cost us very little, like getting someone another cup of coffee, throwing someone's trash away for them, or opening a door for somebody. These are little acts of hospitality that can become part of a community's culture. When everyone is committed to modeling kindness, it can help create a less anxious environment.

Hospitality may require more of us, though. Caring for another's well-being may mean addressing bigger issues, like a home flooding or a job disappearing or the death of a loved one. We can't just solve a problem in many of these cases, and that may leave us feeling helpless. Being of service doesn't require us to fix everything, though. We can make sure people know that they're welcome and we can listen with caring ears. We can help people formulate a plan of action and we can support them as they move forward by encouraging them and checking in on their progress, and even holding them accountable to the things they've said they'll do.

If we listen to a person's needs, we may also be willing to address some of those needs, but it isn't our obligation to do so. If a person needs a place to stay while their home is repaired, hospitality doesn't demand of us more than we can do. We don't need to cash in a retirement fund to pay a person's rent, and we don't need to move out of our little apartment so that they can have a place to stay. Compromising our own well-being out of a sense of obligation is not hospitality -- it's over-functioning. If we have the space in our home to take in someone else, and we choose to accept that inconvenience because we care about another person's well-being, we might offer that gift. Maybe it would be more useful to help that individual think through other people they could reach out to, or maybe we have other connections that we can offer, without taking on the responsibility of working out all the details. Helping people have personal responsibility to the greatest extent that they can is being of service.

Of course, in some religious communities, it's common to hear easy and unhelpful responses when people are vulnerable and express their real needs. Solutions like prayer or trusting a god to work everything out may keep people from being hospitable beyond their comfort zone, but they do little for the person in need. When someone's hungry, offering to pray for them to be well-nourished is no better than offering them a stone. When someone has lost their job, recommending they trust God to provide for them is just useless. True service to another person has a meaningful positive influence, it doesn't just offer an easy fix or an emotional narcotic.

Allowing a person to feel grief without trying to fix it or cheer them up can be hospitality. Listening to a person's anger at getting laid off without feeling obligated to solve their employment challenge can be hospitality. Walking beside someone on their journey without trying to tell them where they ought to go can be hospitality. Sometimes we can help people be clear about their own values and figure out their next steps in alignment with those values, but we don't have to figure out those steps for them. Hospitality is about providing what we are willing to provide to contribute to wholeness in someone else's life. Sometimes, that does mean opening our homes to people who need a place to stay, or spending the day preparing and serving food to people who are hungry. When we choose those actions out of our own values (rather than a sense of obligation), we are better able to create meaningful, authentic community.

There are two sides to mutual hospitality: serving and being served. Some people are more comfortable with one side than the other. Sometimes we are more willing to let our own needs go unaddressed because we believe that another person's needs are more important. Or because we believe that we just matter less. Or because we believe that we should feel shame about our needs. Or any number of other false beliefs. Sometimes we are more willing to let other people provide for us because we believe we deserve it. Or because we believe we're the helpless, powerless victims of our stories. Or because we believe we don't have anything to offer. Or any number of other false beliefs. Whichever side of that mutuality presents the greater challenge for us, we're going to have to do some work if we want it to change. We have to be intentional about our growth if it matters to us.

Hopefully, it's obvious how important mutual self-disclosure is to mutual hospitality. We can't care for one another well if we don't know one another, and we can't be cared for well if others don't know us. We have to show something of our true needs if we want those needs to be addressed. In the context of hospitality, it's also important to set clear boundaries, but this topic is worthy of a fuller discussion. Before we charge down that rabbit trail, we should take a look at another ingredient of meaningful, authentic community that undergirds both mutual self-disclosure and mutual hospitality: active and unconditional love.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Community and Self-Disclosure

We've said that if we want wholeness in our lives, we need meaningful, authentic connection with other human beings. One requirement for meaningful, authentic connection is mutual self-disclosure. We can't live fully in our relationships if we aren't able to reveal who we really are. When we hide our true feelings and needs, we can't reasonably expect other people to know us, to accept us, or to participate in satisfying relationship with us. The best we can hope for is that other people will know and accept the masks we wear. It's up to us to grow in our ability to show our authentic selves to others.

Self-disclosure is tough, though. We hide our true selves because it seems safer than letting people see who we really are. Somewhere along the way, we learned that we aren't acceptable as we are. We became ashamed of something about ourselves, or we became distrustful of others. Somehow, we decided that it was safer for us to hide who we really are and pretend to be someone else -- maybe someone who didn't have the same wounds and needs and wants that we have.

The problem is that we all have wounds and needs. No one gets through life without emotional wounds. Some people are more skillful at tending those wounds, but everyone has wounds. No one gets through life without needing something. Some people are more skillful at getting those needs met, but everyone has needs. When we wear masks that hide our wounds and our needs from others, we have very little chance of having those wounds healed or getting those needs met. We walk around thinking that we're fooling people into accepting or loving us, thinking that we are safely hidden behind a false self we've created, carrying our unhealed wounds and our unmet needs within us.

Of course, we still want to have those needs met, and we still feel pain from those wounds. If we aren't willing to be vulnerable and let other people see those wounds and needs, we try other ways to get what we want from people. We play emotional games in our relationships and in our communities. We try to manipulate people or bully people into doing what we want, while keeping ourselves from feeling vulnerable. Or maybe we try to make the masks we wear as appealing or entertaining as possible, so that people will give us the love and acceptance we want without us having to reveal our true selves. This gives us the illusion of having power -- keeping our real wants and needs secret while figuring out how to make other people give us what we want or need. How much simpler would it be to just tell people what we want or need?

When you think about it, though, people aren't actually accepting or loving us when we play these games or wear these masks. People are responding to our tactics or the false self we show them, but they aren't responding to our real selves. They can't. We keep our real selves hidden. So, we keep the illusion in place that our real selves are unacceptable or unlovable or shameful because we never give anyone the chance to see who we really are. We're too busy playing games. And before we beat ourselves up too much about that, it's worth acknowledging that we have really good reasons to hide who we really are and show up in masks.

No one wakes up one morning and just decides to hide who they really are from everyone around them. We learn what's acceptable and what isn't from other people's reactions -- usually our parents or other significant people in our lives when we're very young. We start evaluating ourselves based on other people's fears and judgments, and at a certain point we shift from being honest about who we are to being very concerned about who other people want us to be. Instead of learning about what we need in order to live fully, we create an illusion of ourselves to try to accommodate everyone else. Maybe we create multiple illusions of ourselves for different relationships.

Sometimes, we encounter communities that encourage us to be vulnerable and self-disclosing, and then those communities betray us. Some organizations want people to be self-disclosing so that shame can be used as a weapon to keep people loyal. Religious organizations are especially practiced at turning people's vulnerability against them, using fear and shame to reinforce beliefs about human weakness and depravity so that people will remain convinced that they need the religious institution. Perhaps other relationships come to mind in which vulnerability and self-disclosure proved to be detrimental. Often, this is because the self-disclosure was one-sided. The priest rarely confesses to the parishioner, for instance.

Our society is constructed around this practice of creating a false self -- an avatar of sorts. We rarely engage in relationships directly because we're convinced that it isn't safe. Instead, we engage in relationships through the filter of a public avatar we've created to keep ourselves safe while enticing or compelling others to give us what we want or need. One-sided self-disclosure is often risky because other people are still committed to playing emotional power games to get what they want from us, and our self-disclosure would seem to put us at a disadvantage in such games. So, there are two responses to this reality that will help us heal our wounds, get our needs met, and live more fully.

First, we can recognize that our self-disclosure removes us from the emotional game. Other people may still want us to engage by their rules of manipulation or persuasion, but our willingness to be vulnerable and honest about our wounds and our needs actually puts us in an entirely different arena. The best reason not to hide who we really are is because we aren't afraid or ashamed of who we really are, and getting rid of our fear and shame opens the pathway for us to commit our time and energy toward things that really matter rather than playing emotional power games.

Of course, dismantling our fears and shame are life-long practices, and we can't wait until we're over all of our fears about who we really are to set our masks aside. Instead, as we develop a willingness to show up authentically, to let people see our true selves, we have the opportunity to build more evidence that our fears and shame are unfounded. We also have to recognize that other people's reactions are usually based on their own fears and beliefs. It's helpful if we can find others who are willing to set aside their masks, too, so that our journey toward authenticity isn't a solo venture.

This brings us to the second response, which is meaningful, authentic community in which people practice mutual self-disclosure. If the agreement of the community is that people are expected to show up as their true selves and not project some idealized avatar, it becomes easier for everyone to set the masks aside. Ideally, mutual self-disclosure is part of a community's covenant with one another, or is in some way part of its stated identity. If this agreement is clearly stated and not just assumed, a community can hold one another accountable -- hopefully because they sincerely care about contributing to wholeness in one another's lives. So, "You seem like you're hiding something. Is there more you want to say?" becomes more of an invitation than an accusation or interrogation. And, "What do you really think?" is a question that can be taken at face value rather than a coded message that your acceptability is based on your willingness to agree with an authority figure or with the herd. Likewise, it becomes easier to say, "It seems like you're trying to persuade/bully/manipulate me a little bit here. What do you actually want or need from me?" Imagine a community that practiced communicating that honestly, directly, and respectfully with one another!

None of this means that all your problems will be solved if you are more self-disclosing. Showing up as your true self doesn't guarantee that your emotional wounds will be healed and all your needs will be met. It just increases your chances. People can't really know what you need from them unless you tell them. And hiding your emotional wounds and your needs from other people pretty much guarantees that they won't be effectively addressed. Pretending you don't have wounds or needs doesn't make them go away. Being willing to show up as your authentic self is a more reliable path toward being fully alive. Since this would constitute new behavior for a lot of us, practicing letting others see your true self in a community where other people are committed to the same level of authenticity and vulnerability is better than developing this new behavior all on your own.

Mutual self-disclosure in community leads to greater ability to be confidently authentic in other areas of your life, and it helps to prevent members of a community from engaging in manipulation, bullying, and enticing others while neglecting their actual wounds and needs. Meaningful, authentic community requires mutual self-disclosure. There are a few other necessary ingredients, as we'll continue to explore in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Intersections and Forging a Path Forward

Several years ago, I worked with an organization that had a mission statement about transforming people's lives. They primarily went about this mission through weekend workshops, but over time, attendance in these events had dropped below a threshold of sustainability. Since I was in a local leadership position, I asked the question, "What else could we do to accomplish our mission?" The response was, "We hold trainings. That's how we accomplish our mission." This was a frustrating, but eye-opening conversation for me. The goal of collaboration between leaders in this organization was not just to provide tools to help people transform their lives, they also had a very specific, narrowly-defined strategy for how they would accomplish what they wanted. I'm no longer connected to this organization, and I don't know if their strategy has shifted. I've moved on to exploring other approaches to creating wholeness. I was committed to their vision for the world, but I wasn't committed to their tactics.

I say all of that to point out: when we consider the big questions we want to ask in life, what we want to create is important and how we are willing to create it is also important. There might be any number of paths that can lead us toward the goal that we envision on the horizon. We can't take every path at once, but we always have the potential to adjust our course. We have to choose how we move forward, and we can also choose to shift our path as we learn more about how we can live into what we most deeply value. 

So, you may recall that our big questions are:
  1. How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
  2. What am I passionate about? What personal life dream of mine creates greater wholeness in the world?
  3. Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 
  4. What fears get in my way? How can I dismantle those fears and understand what I actually want?
  5. How can I get what I most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness?
These aren't five distinct questions. These questions intersect at a few important points. In fact, for some people, a couple of these questions might seem like different ways of asking the same things. Generally speaking, these questions suggest that there is a way for us to live in the world with integrity -- so that our actions are aligned with our deepest values. We have the potential to create greater wholeness in our own lives and in the lives of other people, and there are some things within us that stand in the way -- namely, the fears that we have embraced about ourselves, other people, and reality. As I look at that short list of questions, though, there is one that stands out to me as the lynchpin. 

Authentic community is central to pursuing a creative life dream and to recognizing and dismantling the fears that stand in our way. Relationship with other human beings who are also committed to lives of intention and integrity is a vital component to creating wholeness in the world, and in our own lives. Yet, so often the communities we encounter stifle us, or require us to be inauthentic in order to have a sense of belonging. Some communities are more about self-preservation of the community than they are about the genuine well-being of people. Some communities focus on telling people what to believe or defining what wholeness has to look like. And let's face it, some communities rely on fear and anxiety to control people. How do we find authentic community that actually serves to empower us to live with authentic passion and freedom?

If you're fortunate enough to have that kind of community, by all means, make the most of it. Don't be lazy and wait for other people to tell you what you should be passionate about. Don't wait for other people to tell you what you most deeply want. Use the gift of having an authentic and supportive community to the fullest. My sense is that a lot of people participate in communities that are merely the best thing available to them. Some people become members of churches even though they don't agree with the teachings of the church, just because they crave a sense of belonging. Some people maintain old associations because they keep hoping that something will change and grow, even though they aren't being empowered by those associations to create wholeness or confront irrational fears. So, again, if you're one of the lucky people who have found community that encourages and empowers you to live fully in alignment with your deepest values, make the most of it.

Another option -- the one I'm inclined to pursue at this point -- is to create something better, to build authentic community that actually provides a genuine sense of belonging while also empowering people to do the work they need to do in their own lives. Now, I will say that I've done some work on my own (over the course of years) to clarify my guiding principles and dismantle some of the irrational fears that get in my way. Without a community of people, I felt very isolated and alone for some pieces of that journey. Even a small group of people who understand what you're going for in your life -- empowering and encouraging you to live into a best possible version of yourself -- can make a huge difference. This is why I think community is so vital to being fully alive. Personally, I haven't found a community that effectively (a) offers me a genuine sense of belonging, (b) empowers me to live in a way that is satisfying to me and creates greater wholeness in the world, and (c) equips me to dismantle the irrational fears that get in my way. So, I've set my mind to creating it.

With anything you want to create, it helps to know as much as you can about what you're creating -- to cast a compelling vision of where you're aiming. I think there are five important components to a community that does what I want it to do -- basically, a community that effectively addresses those big questions on which we're focusing. I mentioned these briefly in an earlier post on community: (1) mutual self-disclosure, (2) mutually expressed active and unconditional love, (3) mutual hospitality -- or willingness to be of service and to receive from others, (4) mutual honesty in communication, and (5) sincere affirmation. Healthy communities also have the ability to set clear boundaries and to define a central shared purpose or vision. Just like the organization I mentioned at the beginning of this post clearly defined its strategy, a healthy community can clearly express its identity through a commitment to these characteristics.

Over the next several posts, we're going to look at how each of these elements helps people answer all those other questions. Some of that may seem really obvious to you. I'll be honest, some of it seems obvious to me. But I've learned that some things that seem obvious to me are far from obvious to other people, so I figure the best bet is to lay out the blueprint piece by piece. I hope that approach will be valuable and meaningful to you too.