Belonging in a Community of Strangers

This week I’ve found myself homesick–not for any particular place, not even for particular people. Rather, the experience has been one of a generalized ache for those times in my life when I’ve felt enveloped in day-to-day inclusion, love, belonging.
I’ve felt this with my family, certainly, but I’ve also felt this way in communities of strangers, most notably perhaps when I spent a couple of years living in a 20 person housing cooperative during graduate school. We lived together in an old, immense house that would be a mansion for a single family, each of us with our own rooms but sharing the kitchen, living room, and dining room, along with chores and cooking. There was no one common cause or mission that bound us together beyond our choice to live together in this somewhat unorthodox way, and there were many people there with whom I had very little in common and would not have known in any other context of life, I’m quite sure. And yet, we were bound together. Even the people whom I didn’t particularly like, I felt a sort of kinship with, a bond. Just as in flesh and blood families, there was a recognition that, though I didn’t choose them, these people were ‘my people’, and I was part of them.
In the five years or so since I lived in that housing cooperative, I’ve come to think of my time there as a subtly life-changing experience. To be thrown in with a diverse mix of people, ranging in age, personality, background, lifestyles, etc and to watch these strangers, ‘others’, slowly morph into rich, complex, dynamic individuals who were all–on some level–just like me…it was as though I’d been put into a little microcosm of the world to practice blurring the line between self and other. And, it turns out, once those lines begin to blur, it becomes easier to open your heart to people you would never have trusted with the kind of honesty that only comes from exposed vulnerability. It becomes easier to see the confusion from which others are operating when they engage in words or deeds that feel harmful to you–and to see that, really, you’re suffering from the same confusion, yourself.
Without a doubt, this experience expanded my sense of ‘community’ much further than the confines of the cooperative, but it’s a difficult feeling to retain. Since leaving, I’ve undergone several cycles of opening up and shutting down. Sometimes I just feel too scared, too tired, too weak to extend myself outward, and begin to see the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ emerge in clear, harshly etched lines–not everyone can be trusted, a voice whispers. You don’t belong, is another familiar hiss in my ear. And it can feel so impossible to loosen the tightness and tension that creeps into my body as I hold all of this mistrust and alienation inside of me, walking through the world feeling hurried, impatient, and reactive to every little poke or prod.
At this point, when I’m stuck in a ‘shut-down’ stage of the cycle, I do know how much easier it will be when I come out the other side, when I reconnect to the world as my community. I can vividly imagine what a relief it will be to discard the weight of my armor and feel the gentle pressure of the pokes and prods on my bare skin, to know I’m not under attack, just being urged along my path. But it’s still hard, wading through the ‘stuck’ part of this cycle, knowing–without yet feeling–the truth of what you ‘know’. The good news is that all it takes to form the first chink in my armor is the softening warmth that washes over me in the realization that the person right beside me carries burdens I can’t imagine yet feels their weight just like I do. And then, just like that, this person, this stranger, has joined a widening circle of ‘us’, and I can sense the knot in my chest releasing, the opening up beginning…yet again.

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