Think back to a time when someone asked you what you wanted to do with your life. What was your response? If you’re like most people, you probably described a vocation or profession you wanted to go into, or maybe a skill or hobby that you wanted to develop. Perhaps you described the places you wanted to travel. The theme? You described an action that you wanted to take, something that you wanted to do. But how much thought did you put into deciding who you wanted to do these things with? Or what your social life might look like? Living in community in Hawaii has taught us just how important it is to ask these questions, and how troubling it is that most people don’t.

In short, we spend most of our lives thinking about what we want to do and not who we want to do it with. But who you want to spend your time with, and what relationships you want to maintain, is just as crucial as what you want to do; perhaps even more crucial. What is a life without vibrant friendships, supportive romantic relationships, and cherished familial connections? Living in community is an eco-friendly and sustainable way to foster such relationships, discover purpose, and understand the true meanings of reciprocity, abundance, and love. This week we discuss what we have learned are the most critical elements of sustaining a vibrant, healthy community, and what attributes you will cultivate by living in community.

The Dangers of a Shrinking Sociopolitical Unit

Living in community is not easy. Far from it. Perhaps the stress of living in large family units was what drove us to implement the estranging, isolated nuclear family as soon as the emergence of modern industrial capitalism permitted. But the benefit of stress reduction hardly outweighs the negative implications of isolation.

The emergence of individualistic, capitalistic attitudes has paralleled, and likely fostered, a gradual shrinking of the sociopolitical unit from large family groups to nuclear families, devolving into an almost Hobbesian state of cutthroat individualism where a single person becomes the primary sociopolitical unit. It is becoming increasingly true that reciprocity and samaritan action are foreign concepts. Most of us are more driven by money than empathy, more concerned with material productivity than energetic receptivity. We live like machines, synthesizing and producing without organically experiencing.

But we aren’t machines. We are biologically adapted to live in sociopolitical units of approximately 30 to 40 people. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense: humans that were more inclined to establish close social connections were able to look out for one another and implement specialization based on varied physical capacities and skills sets. The desire to care for others, and others’ desire to care for them, is what made our ancestors more resilient in the face of biological threats than lone hunters.

Individualism and the Body

This individualistic mindset may drive economies, but it is quite foreign to our bodies. Our bodies respond positively to social connection and physical touch. We’ve evolved mirror neurons that allow us to empathize with others, to experience their physical and emotional pain. We have seen that individuals who transition from isolated living to living in community experience better health and more joy. They become motivated to be more active, to eat better, to adventure, to love. But living in community requires skills and perspectives that may take time to cultivate.

Skill #1: Empathy and Perspective

Empathy is perhaps the most critical asset to a community. Community members that lack empathy won’t notice when other people are hurting and lend a helping hand. They won’t intuit when someone takes offense to their actions, and may continue to violate the boundaries of others. Immune to the permeation of emotion, those lacking in empathy feel little need to look out for anyone other than themselves.

Empathy is the visceral and emotional counterpart of perspective, which is more logical and cerebral in quality. Both, though, are critical in community. Empathy is necessary for intuiting the state of a group and becoming invested in caring for others. Perspective is valuable in conflict. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand why that person feels the way that they do is critical to conflict resolution. If you cannot see someone else’s perspective, you cannot truly understand the implications of your own actions. Being able to place yourself in others’ shoes–not just emotionally, but also in terms of their thoughts and analyses–will allow for unbiased, constructive, kind, and empathetic behavior.

Skill #2: Ego Check

The second skill on our list might be the most difficult to master. Since we have all been raised in an individualistic society that preaches pride and power, it can be extremely hurtful to put our own egos away. The first set of skills, empathy and perspective, are excellent tools for keeping your ego in check. If you understand others’ emotions and perspectives, it becomes easier to put away your own pride. But it’s never simple.

It is important to note that checking your ego does not mean putting yourself down. Far from it. In fact, the more self critical you are, the harder it will be to put your ego away. For a lot of people, pride is actually a defensive reaction. When people act to defend their pride, it is usually because they feel that it is threatened, fragile. People defend themselves against criticisms because accepting them as true might be too hurtful. If you attempt to check your ego by putting yourself down, you will either fall into deep pain or subconsciously swing in the other direction, devolving into a violent ego defense campaign to protect against emotional damage.

Instead, you must practice being gentle with yourself. Try to accept yourself as both flawed and beautiful. You can make a mistake or do something wrong and still be smart, kind, and wonderful. Someone’s criticism against you doesn’t define your character or negate your positive qualities. Learning to embrace all parts and work on the parts that you don’t like while maintaining love for yourself is critical to real, sustained growth, to taming the ego in a healthy way.

Skill #3: Be Gentle With Others

Just as you should be gentle with yourself for the sake of your own personal growth, you should do the same for others. If you can try to understand and articulate someone else’s perspective before you even articulate and understand your own, you will greatly increase your chances of effectively and empathetically resolving conflict. It is likely that, in seeking to be gentle with someone else, to understand their unique situation, you may understand their actions and feelings before the person even has to articulate them.

Keep in mind, too, that many people join communities because they lacked them before, or because the ones they were living in were unhealthy. Perhaps they were going through a difficult time at home and chose to join a community for the sake of space and support. That person is likely to be fragile, lonely, and even reactive in their early days living in community. Be gentle.

Sometimes other peoples’ behaviors are universally and objectively wrong. But that doesn’t mean that you have the right to refuse to be gentle. Again, use your perspective to understand why that person might have acted the way that they did. Say, for example, that someone lies to you. Why might they do that? Perhaps they are coming from a violent relationship in which telling the truth may have been physically dangerous. Or maybe someone says something offensive and refuses to accept blame. Perhaps that person derives from a verbally abusive background and lives in a perpetual state of ego-defense. We are all struggling, always. That is the human condition. Be gentle.

Skill #4: Understand Explanations vs. Excuses

The prior two examples demonstrate that weakness and trauma often underlie our offensive behavior. We should always seek to understand where such behaviors might come from. But accepting an explanation for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. You are allowed to maintain healthy standards and boundaries for living in community. It is critical that you do. But accepting an explanation and understanding others can go a long way in easing your anger and replacing it with empathy. Accepting others’ explanations of their behavior will help you cleanse yourself of the toxicity of your own anger.

You should also be mindful of the distinction between explanations and excuses when you are the offender. Explaining your behavior may help others to understand and empathize with your behavior. But, ultimately, your explanations don’t excuse your behavior, and you have to take personal responsibility for your failings. Though sometimes this feels like a blow to the ego, it is actually quite empowering. In explaining your behavior and identifying where it might have come from, you develop compassion for yourself and awareness of the workings of your psyche. In accepting responsibility instead of making excuses, you take the power away from the external influence, i.e. the explanation, and into your own hands. You reclaim the power lost to your experiences and restore it to your conscious free will.

Skill #5: Boundary Competence

Finally, living in a healthy community requires boundary competence. Competency in understanding boundaries includes both establishing your own boundaries and respecting those of others.

Establishing your own boundaries requires both self-awareness and confidence. Sometimes we may be surrounded by people who themselves are more inclined to allow people into their physical and living spaces. Because people tend to project boundaries onto others, those people may assume your boundaries are the same as theirs, entering your physical space in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Know yourself well enough to understand what makes you uncomfortable. And be confident in stating to others that you have a boundary and you expect that others will not cross it. Never blame yourself for being uncomfortable when someone else violates your boundaries. You have permission to be uncomfortable, and you have permission to demand that people respect your boundaries. Respect when others do the same, and use your intuition to gauge when others might be uncomfortable with your behavior.

A wise woman recently explained to me that empathy is also a boundary that can be violated. While being empathetic is crucial in a healthy community, extending your empathy wholeheartedly to people who are in pain can be incredibly emotionally taxing. Sometimes, when you are going through your own trauma, you just don’t have the emotional energy to devote empathy to others’ struggles. That does not make you selfish. You have to take care of yourself first before you can truly support another person. Suffering people may demand your emotional energy. You have the right to decline them. Do so verbally, and with compassion. Explain that you want to be there for them 100%, and doing so requires that you nurture yourself first.

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