Island Hopping: The Search for Community

Ok, so last time I wrote about the struggles we experience when confronted by foundering love; today, I wish to redirect your attention to a very different aspect of love–our need to feel bonded with others. I believe that most people go through life feeling somewhat adrift, dreaming of the day when they’ll find a collective of kindred spirits who live nearby, readily available to happily do stuff together—sort of like a fantasy college dorm but without the smelly hallways or unappetizing cafeteria. We all know that reality is different. Like any school reunion, when thrown together for much more than a day or two, our collective warm fuzzies fade. So, where does that leave us in terms of finding a group of people with whom we feel we “belong”?

Having a spouse or children or living somewhere for decades doesn’t guarantee a sense of understanding or fulfilling connection. I know many people who lay claim to all three and, yet, still feel disconnected. As heart warming as Norman Rockwell’s imagery is, we know there’s a shadow side. “What am I doing here?” is a common refrain. Is it the human condition to remain ever seeking? Perhaps. At least for those of us who are more inquisitive about our true place in this world…

Although Washington is where I was born and reared, the city and I have changed so much that in many deep seated ways, I feel like a stranger. Driving past the National Cathedral, attending a performance at the Kennedy Center, or walking along the canal in Georgetown are bittersweet experiences because I’m not sure how I feel about any of it. I’m not sure I merit frequenting such wonderful places, as ridiculous a notion as this is. Sometimes, I wonder if I’d be more at home starting out somewhere entirely different, like a small town in West Texas. As if that would be any better…

Is a secure sense of connection a mythical construct? Are our expectations for collective relationship unreasonable?

Recently, I was chatting with someone who has lived in DC for thirty years but continues to feel unmoored. “Maybe it’s because Washington is so transient or because we live on a busy street, but people don’t interact much. We don’t want to live here when we get old or sick because who would be there for us?” Who indeed? I don’t think this worry is so unusual. And yet, and yet, community does rise up to support its own when they’re sick or hurting. I’ve seen this, too.

The poet John Donne tapped into the longing for communal relationship asserting, “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main…” So what do we do? How do we create community for ourselves? Can there ever be a true cleaving together or is it much more sensible to accept the possibility that we’re mostly on our own?

I believe we can create community—as long as we don’t hope for too much and are willing to keep watering those seeds.

This is how I look at it: #1) it’s enormously important to be as self-sufficient as possible. Having the confidence and presence of self to enjoy your own company enables you to be happy independent of others and makes it that much more likely that others will want to spend time with you. Nothing drives people away faster than the giant sucking sound of some emotionally needy attention hog.

We must be judicious in how much we can expect from sympathetic others. What I mean by this is that shared interests are a perfect place to start, but beware of letting the conversation drift too far off into unchartered waters. The fact that you both enjoy raising bees does not mean you’ll share similar views on the Keystone Pipeline or the immigrant crisis confronting Europe today.

#2) Politics and friendship is worth addressing in particular because it’s such a hot button issue. Maybe it’s more prevalent here in Washington than elsewhere, but I have watched longtime friendships splinter as a result of differences in politics—no matter that none of the policies in question had any direct impact on their interactions. The fact that these people shared so many other things in common was simply not enough to sustain the relationship—and so, a slow freezing out process began. It’s happened to me.

How we differ on our views of abortion or the Congressional debt ceiling or whether or not the Redskins should change their name really shouldn’t make a difference to our friendship, but so often it does. It’s hard to feel happy around someone who (silently) disapproves of our opinions, disdainfully consigning us into that abhorrent group of “them.” Politics didn’t use to use to be so dispositive, but over the last twenty years, its troubling shadow has chilled many an otherwise happy friendship. The political litmus tests we use to assess whether another person is “worthy” of our time and affection are so often the wrong measure.

So, does this mean we need to high tail it to our local central committee to find people we genuinely want in our lives? No, it does not! I know someone back in Santa Barbara who shares very similar views to mine who I can’t stand. I go to great lengths to avoid being anywhere near them, find them odious, obnoxious, and wonder how in the world they ever found a decent seeming spouse—which makes me seriously question the wisdom of my own views if we share so many in common. Gag. So much for politics making good bedfellows. Now what? Now where do I turn?

#3) The third recommendation I have is a combination of determined effort and a bit of kismet. Building community requires time and initiative. It’s a question of priorities: you either make the effort or you don’t. “Chrisanna, nobody’s going to come knocking on your door,” as a friend recently lectured following a venting session on my part. Sigh. How much did I loathe hearing that? Where are you? Why don’t you come knock on my door? Maybe we could be friends! Eh, whatever… I suspect that finding this sort of connection is harder for men than it is for women who are far more socialized to forage together rather than hunt the forests alone, but for any adult, but it’s never easy. Sifting for those rare gems whose particular sparkle and energy meshes well with our own takes dedication and luck—but the good news is they do exist! “I want to get to know you; you’re fun to hang with.” When was the last time you thought that about another person?

Ok, so the point of these musings has been to articulate the sense of disconnection and desire for community most of us have—this is a form of love. You’re not alone in feeling disconnected. You’re not alone in wanting something more. As re-booters, we’re old enough, experienced enough, and wise enough to recognize that we may have to adjust our ideas of how much we can hope for, while simultaneously leaping at those opportunities when we do meet someone who makes us sit up and take notice. It doesn’t happen everyday, which is why it’s so critical to act when it does. It’s worth fighting for. Otherwise, we sit by ourselves, staring out the window and wonder.

old men talking

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