The Hope of Community
People who know me know that I have a love of community. But I am also quite aware of how superficial and shallow “community language” can be. Anyone can pronounce that any group is a community. I know that it is a slippery word. I don’t know too many people who are against community, but I suspect many of us don’t quite know exactly what community is nor how it is developed and sustained. Sometimes I am not sure myself.
So when I wanted to revisit this topic, I turned to one of my old friends, Parker Palmer. My relationship with Parker goes a long way back. We share quite a bit of ideas and commitments, but he has become famous (and probably rich). I have achieved neither! Palmer has been thinking about and writing about community for a long time. He has been actively involved in thinking about this from the perspective of the educational world. But I don’t think it is that much different from the world of churches, temples and mosques.
Let me share a basic definition of community, as Parker Palmer offers it. He says, “My definition of community is simple, if partial: I understand community as a capacity for relatedness within individuals–relatedness not only to people but to events in history, to nature, to the world of ideas, and yes to things of the spirit.” This definition is a little convoluted, so let’s take some time to unpack it.
In the first place, Palmer defines community to be a capacity. This means a couple things. Most importantly it means community is possible. If we have the capacity for community, that implies it has to be possible. But that raises the second important point. It may be possible, but it is not a given---it is not inevitable. Thirdly, this suggests to me that community will have to be created and nurtured. Simply put, we will have to develop the capacity for community.
The next affirmation about community is that community is a capacity for relatedness. This is the key idea. It means that community is essentially relatedness. This makes sense to me. Basically community is an issue of relating to others. Palmer acknowledges that we all have this capacity within for relatedness. That’s the good news. The less than good news is the fact that not everyone will develop his or her capacity for relatedness. Some of us might not even care. If I am grossly egocentric, I am not at all interested in relatedness.
Finally, Palmer promulgates a notion of community that encompasses more than just people. He talks about community as relatedness with respect to history, nature, ideas, and the spiritual. That is much more inclusive than many of us would think about community. I like this; it serves us well in the 21st century to think in bigger terms. And of course, I very much like how Palmer links community and the Spirit. Let’s move in that direction.
I share one more quotation from Palmer that takes us deeper into our consideration of community. Palmer comments, “If you ask what holds community together, what makes this capacity for relatedness possible, the only honest answer I can give brings me to that dangerous realm called the spiritual. The only answer I can give is that what makes community possible is love.” This may sound a bit odd, but remember Palmer is primarily addressing an educational audience. But he is speaking truth, as I understand it. I love his answer.
The spiritual holds community together. I am convinced this is true. And if we lose touch with the Spirit, ultimately we will lose community. And I appreciate even more the last line of Palmer’s words. What makes community possible is love. This is so simply said, but it is so profoundly true.
So if we want to build, develop and sustain community, we need to get in touch with the Spirit. And then we need to learn love. If we cannot love, we will not have community. Sometimes I have been asked what I thought the secret of community is? I really don’t think there is a secret. It actually is as simple as Parker Palmer makes it.
It is about love and about the Spirit. It is not any more complex than this. But because it is simple, does not means it is always easy. Love is not always easy. But not to love is sad---and perhaps, even, tragic. Community inevitably is a choice that will be a comedy. Oh, it may not be a comedy in the street sense of good laughs. But it is a comedy in the sense that it all comes out well in the end.