* 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.

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