Monday, June 27, 2011

The Community of Self

We seem to be social critters. Affiliation becomes us. A few experiences, however, in the past month or so, while not openly challenging this view, at least have given me pause to reflect on some ‘guidelines’ that might be worth considering before memorizing the secret handshake of our next club initiation rite. Most recently, a lovely little film, Another Year, had found its way into our DVD player. Featuring Jim Broadbent, Leslie Manville and Ruth Sheen, it explores four seasons in the contented lives of Tom and Gerri (no relation, as far as I know. . .) as they host in their home various friends and family members (all with some measure of dysfunction and neediness attached); and tend their ‘allotment’, a plot of land subdivided into parcels and made available to individuals and families to be worked side by side but, and here’s the critical piece in my mind, independent of one another.

A second moment of awareness arrived shortly after my return from a bicycle trip in the UK. A neighbourhood friend paused on his dog walk to chat with me while I fussed over the reassembly of my bike, safely (and happily) arriving in the same time zone and universe as its owner on the inbound flight. After the generic inquiries, he asked if I’d enjoyed the group this time as much as last (reference to a similar venture in France last Autumn). Without a moment’s hesitation I replied that “yes, the company had been extraordinary – convivial, cooperative, interesting, timely, and cycling at just the pace I could manage!” My friend, a fellow skeptic by training and preference, raised an eyebrow and scanned my face for the signature irony he has long associated with our conversations. “I was by myself”, completing my reply. I thanked John for drawing my attention to this particular aspect of the trip – with the quite surprising awareness that it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d quite contentedly spent the bulk of each day in the two-week journey with no other company than my own.

What links these two accounts for me is that community forms an intimate part of both experiences. Tom and Gerri are painted as generous, social beings – Gerri working as a National Health counsellor, Tom as a successful, company-based geologist – connected with their extended family, but content to allow them (an adult son and a sadly disconnected brother) to work out their own issues in their own time. Equally, however, boundaries within and between these relationships are the critical elements that makes their community involvement sustainable and healthy. A somewhat pathetic co-worker is included in the couple’s weekly rhythm of entertaining; to the point where the demands cross a boundary that makes her company intrusive and unhealthy; that point where friendship and support become enabling. The couple is acutely aware and protective of this point and take good care to defend against further encroachment. This is the point where we see them, once again, contentedly working in their allotment garden and regenerating their independence. And what a beautiful metaphor for this balance between community (the parcel within the plot) and individuality. And what a healthy distinction between community and communal.

The solitude and time for reflection, offered by the solo bicycle tour, I now see as fostered and driven by a similar balance. This was not some kind of Into the Wild, ill-construed adventure in self-sufficiency and abandonment of social contact. Rather, day’s end would see me check into a (usually highly restorative) B & B, connect with the hosts, even share tales of each other’s lives (Mick’s story will no doubt find its way into a future riff as testament to resilience and coping). More so, the daily phone call back to Canada, partly to ease my wife’s anxious mind (the constructions her imagination could place on the troubles an aging husband, alone in the Dales could contrive were well worth defusing!) but as much to share the day’s adventures, was a pivotal piece as well; the point where community meets solitude. Without one to define the other, both go wanting.

Larke Turnbull, a journalist and regular participant in one of our weekly mindfulness meditation groups, had chatted with me recently with a principal query being the increasing popularity of meditation; and in particular, meditation in a group setting. It is not difficult to see how sitting, with one’s eyes closed, focusing on the rhythm of one’s own breathing might be construed as a solitary activity – but exercised in the greater presence of a group with similar intentions and, most importantly, with great respect for the other individuals in that group.

One additional comment on this perhaps paradoxical concept of individuality within the group, the community. Alone in a crowd is the sometimes negatively construed description of a person who finds themselves surrounded by people – but still feeling isolated and disconnected. What I’m attempting to describe is essentially the opposite: one who feels at peace with his/her self, content with solitude; but intimately connected in a very healthy and salutary way to those around them. Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul; and Soul Mates) has described what I see as an important starting point for the latter of these two relationships. He references ‘the community of self’, alluding to the multiple aspects of self that we all contain. Gestalt psychology pays great heed to the same idea; as does psychosynthesis theory. The essence is that of cultivating an awareness of and taking ownership for all ‘sub-personalities’ – the good, the bad, and the ugly, as it were – and thereby getting quite comfortable in one’s own skin, with one’s own self. (This is contrasted with rejecting aspects that we find discomforting or know to be unpopular – ‘that’s not the real me’ – and embracing those pieces that we feel will endear us to our community, or relationships.) The ‘alone time’, the keeping our boundaries in place in our community connections, the ‘working of our own allotments’ provides us the space and opportunity to get to know ourselves. Then (and perhaps only then) do we have the perspective, the assurance, the self-knowledge, self-acceptance to develop and maintain healthy membership in our communities.

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