This is not one of those posts with a clear point. But these thoughts have been rattling around in my head for weeks, and sometimes if I just get things written down, then I can be like Dumbledore in Harry Potter, when he puts his thoughts in the Pensieve so he can look at them from a distance to figure out connections and make sense of things.
Over the past few weeks, there are two main themes that keep emerging through conversations I’ve had with friends and pieces of I’ve read: 1. intentional community and 2. the stories we tell ourselves.
We have this notion in American culture of individualism and expectionalism. It’s born of philosophers in Western thought dating to before our country was even formed. And I submit these old thoughts are killing us.
The idea that any of us makes it through life alone is really laughable when you stop and think about it. I went to public schools in my small town, which paid a reasonably high mileage rate so our schools would be very good. My college education was paid in part through scholarships and federal grants. The rest was paid in government-backed loans. I went to public universities for undergraduate work, funded in part by the tax payers of Arkansas and Oklahoma. I got an FHA loan for my first home.
So my life foundation was built on the adults who went before me. They paid part of my way. I’ve been able to live a comfortable life as an grown up because of the investment my community made in me. In return, I donate to charity; I volunteer for community projects; I pay all of my taxes; I recycle; I got my pets spayed and neutered. I pay forward into some other kids’ futures.
So when I hear people talk about how they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for other people’s kids, I seriously don’t understand. When people want to continue to defund public education, food programs and other social programs, I am appalled. Was I (and the millions of other kids like me) such a bad investment?
When people deride millennials who are eyeball deep in college debt and underemployed as lazy or entitled, I am baffled. We set up a system, yanked the rug out from under them and then blamed them for the fall. Lord have mercy.
We all need each other: professionally, emotionally, spiritually, mentally. But the structures that we used to revere to give us intentional community, we now deride: government, unions, churches, schools.
It has become increasingly clear to me that we have to find our way back to one another. We must become intentional about our communities, both big and small. We need each other.
Through unions, we used to have apprenticeship programs to mentor and educate workers. Churches used to be a safe refuge. The word “sanctuary” comes from the medieval church law that made fugitives immune from persecution within the confines of the church. Public schools were begun with the idea that our entire community was better off if everyone, no matter the education level of their parents, were given a solid education to begin life.
None of that happened by accident. All of it was deliberate and intentional. We have to stop talking and making policies about what we’re against and who we exclude and start focusing on who is being left out and find ways to bring them in.
We have to create mentorships and roundtables to help one another. We must contribute our strengths to others weaknesses. We must also be willing to raise our hands and ask for help when we need it.
Networking isn’t about knowing successful people to get you ahead in life. Networking is creating a group who all help each other so that everyone’s lot is improved.
The stories we tell ourselves
We all tell ourselves some kind of story about who we are and how we fit into this world. Most of us tell ourselves stories that are completely true. But they may or may not be focused on anything productive.
There are a lot of things about myself that are true: I’ve had spectacular failures; I’ve said the wrong things; My family can be kind of mess; My faith falters; I can be mean; I’m a little bit crazy. But focusing exclusively on those truths doesn’t really help me much. In fact, it pulls me into a deep spiral. It doesn’t serve me well at all.
So I’m working on a new narrative. Things that are also true, but move to more a productive place, rather than let me wallow in self-doubt: I’ve been successful at some things; I can be a good friend; I work hard; I have good intentions; I can organize like nobody’s business (95% of the time); I root for the underdog; My family has loved me well; I keep holding on to some piece of faith, against all obvious signs; I’m not as crazy as I used to be.
Maybe the way to build a community and find our way back to one another is to start by telling ourselves a new story. Yes, some people game the system, and at the same time, a lot more build productive lives with a springboard underneath them. Yes, there are some lazy people at work, and there are also many more who do their jobs well and honorably. Yes, there are places who say they have a line to God but heap more judgement than love, and there are also places of broken people who are honestly doing their very best to be the hands and feet of God in a grace-filled way.
This is where I’d write a kicky conclusion if I had one. But I don’t. Sometimes it helps to write it all down. Maybe it’s helpful to you to read it. Either way, it’s not in my head any more. So now we can all look at it together. Maybe there’s some connection and conclusion in there after all.