* 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 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.

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