* 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

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.