Community is not the same thing as intimacy, nor is intimacy what community brings as gift. Years of yearning and disappointment are packed into this statement, though I am also smiling, now on this side of things.
A searing yearning has accompanied me most of my life. It’s really only been in the last years that I learned not everyone has this sensation inside of them. For me, it’s a waxing and waning emptiness within, met somehow in being seen, being deeply heard in who I am or what I have to say. Sometimes I’m acutely in touch with it, feeling its weight and drive to be met somehow, anyway, anyhow. More often than not, in these days, I’m less attuned to its urgencies and need. I know some of the stories underneath it, and can hold the ‘searing’ quality with a bit of watery ease. I also appreciate its contributions and gift in my life, the fruit of its drive.
Community did not provide for me what I have needed, however, nor was the intimacy I craved to be found in its valleys or mountaintops. Community is not the same thing as intimacy, nor is intimacy what community brings as gift.
Parker Palmer’s essay articulated this for me in a way I could finally see it in my own experience. He names clearly that our culture today associates community with intimacy, which he points out is a trap.“When community is reduced to intimacy, our world shrinks to a vanishing point: with how many people can one be genuinely intimate in a lifetime?” A light bulb went off in my head when I read those words for the first time. I was both exhausted and exhilarated. The energy output in my life at the time, to craft a faith community for myself in which I could be seen and heard, in which I could feel safe, was huge. Ultimately unsustainable. I was attempting to be intimate with an increasing number of spiritual friends, across geography and even generations. I was seeking intimate community, or so I thought.
Palmer’s observation freed me to see my own finitude, accept my own limitations as gift. He was inviting me to relax into my created condition and be receptive to all around me apart from my intentions. Trust the gifts that would be given, that would emerge. Palmer crafts an image of community that resonated with me as soon as I read it, yet was also liberating me from this yearning that drove me so.
Community must be an expansive web, he observes. It must be “capacious enough to embrace everything from my relation to strangers I will never meet (e.g., the poor around the world to whom I am accountable), to people with whom I share local resources and must learn to get along (e.g., immediate neighbors), to people I am related to for the purpose of getting a job done (e.g., coworkers and colleagues).” In this expansive sense of community, we are related to one another without any one of us being completely responsible for the relationship itself. I know that sounds arrogant and more--how is one person responsible for any relationship, after all?--but it’s how I was reared. It’s my natural (if unhealthy) way of feeling connected, important, valued in relationship. I assumed for decades that I am responsible to care for the other if I am to be connected, to serve others if I am to be seen, to expend my own energies for what the other desires I am not to be alone. In my unconscious need, I constantly "served others" out of my own need more than their own. Ego-driven ministry, which is not ministry at all.
Parker conceded what is now acutely obvious to me, after forty years of living into the responsibility paradigm: “Intimacy is neither possible nor necessary across this entire range of relationships.” His question is worth repeating: With how many people can one be genuinely intimate in a lifetime? For an extroverted introvert like myself--one who thrives on one-on-one connection in multiple, serial fashion--the number of folks may be larger than some others. But it’s still finite. It’s still limited to decreasing energies as I age. I had been working so very hard to create a scaffolding of spiritual friendships that could hold seekers across traditions, differentiating from norms and expectations. I had thought community simply needed to be more intimate to do its healing work in the world.
But to be freed of this increasingly heavy responsibility paradigm? To realize that community was not intimacy, nor intimacy community? Really? I found myself wondering. I don’t have to serve to be seen, caretake others to be connected? I can learn to trust connection that I have not earned? Could my connectedness truly arise from a strengthened capacity for it, that contemplation strengthens in me? The invitation arrived at just the right time--enforced lockdown, in a global pandemic--and while I was terrified of being isolated and alone, I found myself more and more deeply connected. Somehow.
To begin to open my assumptions and learnings about this sense of community continues to unfold and challenge me. I’ve lived in my community is source of intimacy for so long that I find myself there often, even though I know it’s not liberating or even true. Strengthening my capacity for connectedness is what ultimately connects me inside...to the earth (my prayer tree outside, Mama Elm, for instance), to sentient beings who don’t speak in words (my heart-dog, Nala), to strangers I encounter in the grocery store, to human beings across the globe whose eyes and voices touch me now in ways new to me… Strengthening my capacity for connectedness continues to challenge me in specific areas of my life where I have felt hurt or unseen--so, with church colleagues, or higher education colleagues of all sorts. So many unhealthy habits from those environments, so now, many opportunities to practice health and differentiation while loving, strengthening capacity for connectedness even there. With ‘them.’
When community and intimacy can be un-hinged from one another, I think there is also invitation to confront our habitual tribalisms--of nation, of church, of political party, etc.--with an increasingly larger web of relatedness that liberates. When you can pursue and participate in just a few of your most significant relationships that will deepen your own sense of intimacy--being seen, being heard, offering gifts of the same to those you love--then there is a freedom to broaden your sense of community...to include a whole slew of ‘others’ with whom you are related, whether you wish it were so, or not: strangers, colleagues, local-neighbors, more... You can begin to see all 'others' as part of a communal web, human being, belonging...being-longing...
Because like it or not, Parker names from the beginning of his essay, “we are embedded in community. Whether we think of ourselves as biological creatures or spiritual beings or both, the truth remains: we were created in and for a complex ecology of relatedness, and without it we wither and die.” So much of my life has been spent attempting to craft an intimate community around me, so be seen, heard, safe, loved. I’d like the remainder of my life to be spent honoring the community within which I’m clearly embedded, apart from my choice or preference, knowing now that those with whom I am blessed to be intimate will be fewer, sustainable, and free. Connect, so you can connect again later...
There is great gift in finitude, as I often tell my students...to really not being in charge at all. Responsive, not responsible or reactive. Responsive, curious, receptive, free... It becomes feasible, then, for me to focus on what is mine to do: strengthen my capacity for connectedness through contemplation, delight, receptivity. That feels do-able, human, humane.
I invite you into that as well. Join me?