Is our sense of community under fire? Questionable police shootings, suicide bombings, political bad-mouthing, attention-stealing smartphones, and text-messages masquerading as conversations would seem to suggest so. If you’re nodding yes, then you might also be craving more community. But what is it that we’re really craving? What is this thing called community?
When I listen, I hear the world speaking of community like it’s a place, a human-gathering place. Yet, our desire was born in these gathering places: the towns, cities, schools, churches, factories, offices, elevators, malls, coffee shops, restaurants, parks, and even the houses that speckle our countryside. So, it must be that the community we’re seeking is missing from these places, despite all the gathering that they may invite.
Still looking, I turn to the language, and look at the word itself. And what I see as I trace its branches downward are its roots in the verb “to commune” which traces deeper into the Old French comuner, which means “to make common, share.”
What we’re seeking in our search for community is not a place, but an experience of sharing our commonness, our sameness, what I’ve come to think of as “oneness.” While I love that word, it still only points to an experience, the way a book title only points to a story, but doesn’t tell it, or more importantly, have us feeling it. For that, we’ve got to get into action; we’ve got to start communing. So how do we commune?
Many of us are familiar with communing in the sense of communing with nature, becoming one with nature. I asked my 15-year-old daughter about this, as she had just returned from hiking among the hills and pines of northern Minnesota, and she surprised me in answering that communing with nature was “being with nature.” Aha, I said, I think this “being with nature” is the key. So how do we be with nature?
I think there are three key parts to this. The first part is that when we go to nature, at least those of us who go voluntarily, we go with a certain mindset or intention to experience something extraordinary, something that is beyond what we’ve been experiencing. There’s a sense of discovery or wonder that we’re bringing to the party.
The second part is that we expect that what we’re about to experience is good for us. We understand that nature in the individual and collective forms we’re about to take in can nourish us in deep and penetrating ways. How many times have you heard folks talk about needing to get out of the city, or into the woods?
The third part is that we make sure we get the good stuff by actually paying attention. We actually dig into and start feasting on our sensorial experience of the world around us, the colors, the smells, the tastes, the textures. We lavishly pour loving attention all over the hills, creeks, lakes, flora and fauna that we see.
These are qualities or ways of being that we bring, really offer, to nature in order to be with it and create the communing experience we want. We can also bring those same qualities to commune with each other.
We can bring wonder. We can see each other for the great wonders that we are, understanding that each of us has traveled a lifetime to be wherever we are in any given moment. That we are each a miracle of light and stardust manifested into a unique form that will never exist again in exactly the way that it is now. That we hold as much magic and magnificence as any flora or fauna, hill or valley, or stream or ocean.
We can bring a knowing that being with someone is good for us and them. We can bring a knowing that everyone we meet has something unique to offer us, to teach us about his or her human experience. They can uniquely share with us about their experience of us. They can even be with us, as we’re being with them.
We can also bring lavish loving attention to people. We can notice them as we would the great pines, the great lakes, the other great wonders of nature. We can wake up and feast on the sensorial experience of another human. We can gaze into their eyes, as looking in the eyes of a long lost brother or sister or lover. We can listen like we listen for the sound of the ocean in a seashell, or the trailing off of a musical note just ended. And we can speak of what we have seen and the impact of that seeing on us.
And these offerings are the offerings that any human can offer another. These are the offerings that each of us can bring to any gathering, whether with one or with one hundred. We can offer these gifts to the cashier at the grocery store, the server at the restaurant, our mother, our father, our sister, our brother. And when we do offer these things, we will be creating the experience of community — not only for ourselves, but for any other in our midst, regardless of age, class, creed, color, race or religion.
Yes, I see a world, a radically wonderful world, where your sense of community is your own creation, and where you hold the power, as Louis Armstrong so beautifully sang, to see the colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by. The power to shake their hands, saying “How do you do?” And the power to really mean I’m choosing to be with you.