Eighth grade was excruciating for me. I was raised in a family, as most of us were, without having a lot of choice about those relationships. People were just there to connect to or not. School wasn’t that much different. The only thing that mattered was geography and because I lived in a certain place, I went to a predetermined school. Because we moved when I was in second grade, the kids I went to school with all had previous relationships with each other and I struggled to find a place I belonged. That only worsened as I got older. By the time I got into sixth grade I wanted more than anything to just disappear or even to be hit through no fault of my own by a runaway train – which would be quite a feat in Fruitport!
I was a desperate for community.
The need for community is in our blood. Human beings throughout all of history have formed themselves into clans and tribes. It is only in our relationship to others that we define who we are. It is in community that we find our identity. It is in community that our sense of esteem grows, that we gain a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
We all need a place of belonging – perhaps now more than ever, as we struggle with the realities of broken community, fragmented society, and disrupted family systems. If we don’t find it, we live more and more in isolation. We experience more and more emotional, spiritual, and social brokenness.
For me, the gift of community finally arrived in ninth grade. That was when I got the courage to try out for a play. And I was cast. And life changed. The group of Upstagers at Fruitport High School became my first family of choice.
You Are Not Alone
A family of choice is a community you belong to because you want to. A place in which you feel at home – or in some cases much better than at home. Relaxed, happy, confident. A place where we discover we are NOT alone – that we share similar thoughts or enjoy similar activities with other human beings. If we are lucky, we feel so comfortable that we show a side of us that doesn’t normally come out as we negotiate the complexities and demands of our every day lives. If we’re lucky, we play.
As we choose to be members and friends of this community, we also receive the gift of being accepted by the community. For unlike our parents, our siblings or even the people sent to the same school as us, a family of choice receives us not because in some sense they have to, but only because they want to.
Families of choice are nothing new. I think of the group my grandparents met with once a week to play bridge and other card games. Or the bowling league my father participated in for years. One of my friends grew up where there were regular neighborhood block parties. My mother found a family of choice by joining Weight Watchers. And back then all of us went to church.
But today those opportunities can no longer be assumed. Sociologists speak of having three places: the home, the work environment and one other place. The other place was often church or a civic club, or a group gathered around a sport or a hobby. Then a few years ago a sociologist wrote a book called Bowling Alone and called attention to the fact that we are becoming more and more isolated in our society. More recent reports show that social media, while providing an easier way to connect, is ultimately leading to more social isolation as we post or tweet in place of face to face communication.
Community Means Better Health
In the early 1960′s some remarkable research was conducted in the town of Roseto near Bangor where the rate of heart disease was far below normal. Roseto was a town of 1600 Italian-Americans. Every home in the town had three generations living in it and the sense of community was very tight.
Teams of medical researchers spent time in Roseto trying to determine why the rate of heart attack was so much lower than nearby Bangor. Was it diet? No, Rosetans shared a typical American diet. Was it genes? No. Other Italian communities had heart attack rates similar to the national average. Was it healthy habits? No. Rosetans smoked as much as people in neighbouring towns and exercised as little as people in neighbouring towns, and met the national average for obesity and high blood pressure. Was it the physical environment? No, there was no significant difference between Roseto and neighbouring towns. Was it a short term statistical anomaly? No, the trend held up over a fifty year study.
In the end health officials did eventually track down the secret to good health in Roseto – ready for it: it was simply a close sense of community, with very strong bonds of family and friendship. The head of the research team wrote in his report: “In terms of preventing heart disease, it’s just possible that morale is more important than jogging or not eating butter.”
Interestingly, the initial research team predicted that the health benefits would diminish as successive generations ‘Americanised’ and lost their tight knit sense of community. Today, over 50 years later, this prediction has proven sadly accurate.
When we face the realities of isolation and the brokenness in our own lives, in our own families and in the very fabric of society, we find we need more than ever to find a place of belonging. Equally important, if we don’t find a way to include a third place as part of our life, we run the risk of finding a third place as an escape from our life.
Some of the latest trends in society have been identified by a futurist with the wonderfully playful name of Faith Popcorn. She identified a number of social trends and three of them very specifically speak to what C3 is all about and why we are positioned to be a highly sought after family of choice.
First, is Anchoring. Anchoring is reaching back to one’s spiritual roots in order to take what was secure from the past and use it to be ready for the future. Here at C3 we regularly celebrate our own roots while also exploring the roots of different traditions and ideologies giving us tools to both deepen and expand our spirituality in order to feel secure when tomorrow is so uncertain.
Second is Clanning. Clanning is the act of belonging to a group that represents common feelings, causes or ideals. Clanning is how we validating our own belief system. My friend Reed Schroer talks about being a weirdo and the need he has, not to give up being a weirdo, but to be in community with other weirdos. Here in West Michigan, many of us find ourselves as the anomaly. There are plenty of places that our beliefs and attitudes would not be accepted. But here, in this community, we are united by a common mission, vision and set of values. We have found our fellow people!
The third is Egonomics. Egonomics points to the fact that to offset a depersonalized society, we crave recognition of our individuality. So even as we find those things that bind us together in common community, we also want people to see us as the unique individuals we are. And that is one of the things we do best. Here we recognize and deeply honor the individual spiritual journey and we let people be who they are. True community is not a melting away of individuals into a common, lumpy soup. It is the deep valuing of each individual as a unique expression and incarnation of the life force.
Families of Choice Aren’t Perfect
But families of choice are not perfect. They come with the same pitfalls as any relationship and may show the same dysfunctional patterns of any family system. I didn’t suddenly get self-esteem and emotional healthiness because I was accepted in the community. We carry into our relationships of choice all the things we learned and are in the relationships we didn’t choose. There is the same danger of selling our selves short, living out old scripts, and being less than our authentic selves. There is the same danger of trying to control and change others, of not allowing them to be their authentic selves.
As we continue our journey we will need to be patient and gracious with each other. And we will be urged to continue doing our own work to deepen our own authentic identity, because when we become more whole and integrated individuals ourselves, then we naturally seek to bring that same depth and wholeness to our relationships as well.
When I led Extended Grace there was a gentleman who became part of my leadership team, but that took three years to cultivate. The first six months he attended Extended Grace, he did so in his car in the parking lot, too frightened to come inside because of the rejection he had experienced in other communities. As we find that we are no longer alone, we will naturally reach out to invite others to join us knowing that there are lots of other people out there who are also desperate for a place to belong. And as we invite others to join us, we will need to remain aware that others will come here with their own baggage and history and we need to meet people where they are and invite them to participate only as they are able.
We are community when we share our stories with each other, when we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, and when we take time to listen to and honor the stories we are told. For every story you are offered, every story I am offered, is a gift.
When you find a family of choice, it is time to begin making an investment there. We spend years setting aside money for our retirement. Investing in relationships and in the health of this community identity reaps similar benefits. When life is hard and pain is real, the skills we learn by living in community and the network of relationships we build will provide us with the comfort, the security and the joy we need.