In the early 90’s, Linda and I were in a group that was made up of therapists, educators, and health care providers who were part of a community that was focused on personal and social transformation and healing. At least that is how most of us would describe the common theme that brought us all together. We met on a regular basis in one of the member’s living rooms and shared our views on what was wrong with the world and what needed to be done in order to bring more love, peace and justice into it. If you’re starting to sense where this is going, you’re probably right.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before it became clear that our group of “experts” wasn’t so good at relating to each other peacefully and non-judgmentally ourselves. Many of us, including yours truly, beginning in the first meeting used various forms of coercion and manipulation making efforts to convince others of the “right” way to get the job done.
As frequently happens in group meetings where there is too much talking and not enough listening, things got pretty heated early on and it wasn’t long before it became clear that if something didn’t change soon the group would implode. It also became clear in the process of trying to process the process, that it wasn’t about getting others to come around to seeing things from my point of view, it was about learning how to listen to each other’s perspectives from an intention to understand their point of view. The object wasn’t to have everyone get on the same page or for us all to agree on the correct view, but to be able to appreciate how we each saw things and to recognize the common ground on which we all stood rather than defending our personal position.
The group managed to stay together for quite a while after our “identity crisis” and although we never did manage to bring about world peace (many of us are still working on it), I think it’s safe to say that most of us learned a lot from wrestling with the challenges that provided us with lots of “growth opportunities.”
The other day a friend who was a member emailed me a letter that I had written to the group that she had saved. In reading it I was reminded of the power of group process and of how many of the lessons of our shared experiences apply not only to large groups like the United Nations, or the U.S. Congress, but to very small groups of two, like marriages as well. I’ve excerpted parts of the letter here that might be of interest to you. Enjoy!
The experience of community may be viewed as a microcosm of our world in which groups containing members of great diversity of views, beliefs, backgrounds, and orientations face the challenge of creating not agreement or consensus, but something far more challenging: the understanding that can only come from empathy and compassion. We don’t need to agree with each other, but if we are to ever represent more than our own individual interests, we have to find some broader, more common ground on which we can all stand together.
The word “community” has its roots in the word common, which has to do with shared interests and concerns. Community doesn’t require consensus or even agreement. What it does require is the willingness to focus on that which we hold in common: the bonds and characteristics that unite rather than separate us. Community to me means a context in which we are all able to be ourselves, embracing our uniqueness while we honor the uniqueness in each other. This uniqueness involves our personal concerns, beliefs, points of view, idiosyncrasies, longings, and anything else that defines our experience of ourselves.
To the degree that I can honor the common ground that as human beings we all share, I can find room to embrace the extraordinary diversity of outer differences that appear to divide us. When we see that our sense of separateness is delusionary, we can experience our interconnectedness and we can create the foundation that community needs to stand on. From that foundation, an enormous amount is possible, including the fulfillment of our individual and shared concerns. Without it, I fear that there may be much talk and activity, but little in the way of effective action that truly unites and heals.
Doug quotes the physicist David Bohm in his book, The Tao of Dialogue: “There is no road to truth. In dialogue we share all the roads and we finally see that none of them matters. There may be no pat political answers to the world’s problems-just as in dialogue the important point is not the particular opinions but rather the softening up and opening up of the mind.”
Thirty years later, Bohm’s words seem more relevant than ever.