From Me to We
Community has always been important to me. But it is more than just an idea. Community can be an experience. I have been fortunate to be part of a number of communities. Community is more than a group. I have also been part of many groups, but they were not communities. I could probably list a few characteristics of community. Among them would be care for each other, etc. However, detailing the list is not important here.
I have also been fascinated with the process by which community is formed. At the beginning of every new semester, I tell the students that I hope somehow through the course of the semester we can form a community. In most cases the students do not know each other. The only thing they have in common is they go to the same college. I think I have some ideas about community formation, but I certainly do not think I am an expert.
I received another insight into community and community formation when I was re-reading a book by my friend, Alan Jones. It is a book I have often used in classes. I like the book very much and have told Alan that it is my favorite book that he has written. The book bears the title, Soul Making. I also like the subtitle: The Desert way of Spirituality.
The insight came when I read these couple sentences. “I have to learn that my ego is not my real and best self. The ego is not the soul. I am, paradoxically, most myself when I can say ‘we.’” Although on the surface Jones’ words do not seem to be dealing with community, I contend that they are directly about community. Let’s pursue it to see how this is the case.
The first thing that Jones contends is crucial to understanding what he wants to argue. My ego is not my true or best self. This can be both confusing and disappointing. It can be confusing to those of us who have not thought about ourselves very much. The word, ego, gets used in our culture, but perhaps many of us don’t really understand what it means. Literally, the word, ego, is a Greek word. It appropriately is translated “I.” So the ego is “I” and “me.” It would seem that this would describe my true and best self.
But of course, Jones says it does not. The trick here is to observe that Jones shifts to the language of “self.” Apparently, the ego is not the same thing as the “self.” This is where I can well be disappointed. It suggests that “I” may be less important than my self. Put simply, this means what I want is not always legitimate or appropriate. We can get a good take on this if we see the tendency of the ego (the “I”) is to put itself in the center. When that happens, we say that I am now “egocentric.” Of course, we all have enough experience in life that we are wary when someone is egocentric! If I am egocentric, then I am the center of the world and you are not! If I am egocentric, then I try to get what I want and I don’t necessarily care about what you want. Egocentrism is independently and individualistically driven.
But ego is not the same as my true or best self. My ego is not the same thing as my soul. I am ok with true self and soul being synonymous---being the same thing. This point brings us back to Alan Jones’ quotation and his insight. He said that I am most myself when I can say “we.” I like this, but I need to reflect on it to understand why I like it. In my simple understanding, Jones is asserting that I find and become my true self when I am in the midst of community.
Another way to put it is to say that becoming truly and authentically part of a community means we have to check our egocentrism at the door. To be a real member of community means I have to put the community ahead of my own needs and desires. To be a real member of a community means it goes to the center and not my ego. In a fancy way we can say that the true self is commune-centric and not ego-centric!
No wonder so many people want nothing to do with this approach. We prefer egocentrism. We prefer to get our way---to get our desires and fulfill our wants. What we don’t understand (or pretend not to understand) is that egocentric living typically is selfish living. Communal living asks us to become selfless and give up our selfish ways. That is a tall order for the typical American!
The only sure way I know to make this move is to embrace the spiritual. To become spiritual is to discover the self and to become soulful. That is the key to Jones’ book---soul making. The only other option is egocentrism, which is nothing less than pretending we are each our own gods.
But if we begin to walk the spiritual path, we begin to understand the wisdom of Jesus, of the Buddha, and so many others saints in various traditions. We get a glimpse of the spiritual path if we pay attention to the words in the Lord’s Prayer---not my will but Thy Will.” That is the prayer of the soul in search of community, not the egocentric petition of the selfish one.
Spirituality enables the move from me to we.