Thursday, March 22, 2012

Community: Virtual AND Real

Warning: Long post today!

I've been pondering the idea of community lately. I think community is vital to our health as humans: spiritual, emotional and even physical. I do not think that humans were meant to live in isolation, regardless of whether they are introverts or extroverts. We need community.

But some of us find it difficult to develop community. I don't think our American culture facilitates this very well. Having returned last summer after many years living outside the country I am struggling to connect and fit into a community. My family and I returned to the church that we had attended when we went overseas and most recently a couple years ago while on home assignment. We have been warmly welcomed and we know many people there, but I at least struggle to really feel like I am part of the community. I think that people care, but yet the interactions on Sunday remain largely superficial. I recognize that we can only go so deep in the context of Sunday morning worship, although I think our worship communities would do well to put off the superficial and move into deeper relationship with one another. In order to find deeper community my wife and I joined a small home fellowship group. After many months I finally am beginning to feel like I am truly a part of the group, although I often feel like I don't fit well because of my perspectives on many issues. So far they haven't thrown me out, but I also haven't fully opened myself either. I tried attending a men's group at the church, but they meet early on a weekday morning which is not an ideal time for me. In fact, at this point it's not a workable time at all as I must take my daughter to school. So I started attending a men's group at another church that meets during lunchtime. I really enjoy the fellowship and time discussing the Bible, but again I feel like the odd man out, in part because of my age (other than myself, there are usually only a couple of men who are not of retirement age. My father attends with me and he is young compared to most of the group), and in part because of my viewpoints.  I don't think I should only join groups where I agree with everyone, but at the same time it's hard to open up in a group if you fear that you will be met with an overwhelmingly negative response.

I think that it is particularly hard for working-age men to find community. I may be wrong, because obviously I cannot write from the perspective of a woman. But it seems to me that women have more opportunities. Churches run women's events during the daytime and most groups to support stay-at-home parents (whether of toddlers or homeschoolers) seem oriented toward women—which is natural since most adults in these categories are women. But when I was staying home with my children as toddlers I didn't feel I could join such groups because I was a man and there wasn't a place for me. Because men my age are working during the day and more often than not investing time in their families in the evenings, it is hard to find time to get together with them. So community suffers.

Simply put, we're often too busy to invest in one another.

Lately I've found a new community, an active and engaging community. This community, however, is virtual. It happens through blogs, on Facebook and in other virtual venues. Some argue that Facebook promotes superficiality in relationships, that it cannot promote real community and relationship. Certainly that can be the case. But I'm finding that it doesn't have to be. Through the internet we can connect with people we don't have the opportunity to meet with face-to-face. Not only can we keep in touch with old friends who are now physically distant, we can make new friends with people who are far away.

Is this community any less real? Someone might say that in a virtual community one doesn't really know the other people. We only know the image that they present online. Well, that's true. Of course the same can be said for people we interact with regularly in person. I've known plenty of people in “real” life who were quite good at projecting an image and getting people to believe it. So face-to-face interaction doesn't eliminate that possibility. 

I think we do need local community and I plan to continue to expand and deepen mine. At the same time, I'm really glad that I can be part of virtual communities, that I can meet new people and share in their lives and stories. I can learn from them. Perhaps someday we'll have the opportunity to meet face to face, but if not, that doesn't make the relationship any less real.

I think that the key to any community or relationship being real is vulnerability. If we are not able and willing to be vulnerable, we cannot experience true community in any context. Unfortunately I think this is often the reality we face. Most of us, myself included, fear vulnerability out of shame, so we build walls and hide behind them. We protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt by not reaching out, not sharing, not revealing our weaknesses and hurts, not opening up our true selves. This happens in local relationships and in virtual ones. But as we have the courage to be vulnerable, we can begin to form real community, both in person and virtually. I can be just as real and vulnerable to someone over the internet as I can in person. It's a risk either way. I just have to decide that it's worth taking.

I think we men suffer more in this area because we have such a hard time being vulnerable. I cannot say for certain, because I cannot speak from the perspective of my female friends. I'd love to hear what they think. But I do know that I find it harder to be vulnerable with men because there is always that fear of being judged as weak and cast off, ridiculed or rejected as not being “man” enough. The funny thing is, I think lots of men feel this way, but we have a hard time getting past the cultural walls that keep us from actually admitting it. I certainly find it easier to open up with women because in general I find they aren't as quick to judge and are more often willing to go deeper in communication. I think it's one of the great benefits of relationships between men and women. In interacting with those who are unlike us, we learn to see things in a new way and, hopefully, become less quick to judge and condemn and therefore, more able to be vulnerable ourselves.

How do you experience community? In what ways have you found community locally? Have you found that you can have meaningful community virtually? How do we create environments in which we can be vulnerable with one another?

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