Hey howdy hey, AFS family!!
It’s me, your friendly neighborhood Rin! If you’ll allow, I’d like to begin this blog with a short anecdote. I recently saw the Lord of the Rings movies for the first time ( know, I know), and as I watched it, I couldn’t help but laugh at Frodo’s
incompetence. It seemed like Frodo was incapable of making good decisions: he walked ignorantly into danger like a blissfully unaware child and, without the help of his many friends, would’ve definitely died way before he even came close to his goal. I scoffed at him, joked about his protagonist status, and judged his failures. However, the more I watched, the more I felt a kinship with him. I realized that Frodo’s incompetence greatly mirrored my own, especially when I’m in the throes of mental health, and if it weren’t for the support and encouragement of my own “fellowship,” I wouldn’t achieve any of my own goals either. In order to make it through our trials and tribulations, we need people to fight where we cannot, to carry where we struggle, and to defend where we’ve fallen.
Our western culture prioritizes “the self.” Popular show “West Wing” ended many of its episodes with “What’s next?”and I think that’s the attitude many of us have when it comes to self-improvement. “What’s next?” we ask, purchasing another self-help book. “What’s next?” we
think, checking another task off of our to do list. “What’s next?” we wonder, sitting in the office after our promotion. We throw ourselves into the process of progress, holding ourselves to new and higher standards, shedding old skin and coming out new. I know it sounds like I’m setting this up to be a bad thing, so let me be clear: it isn’t! Our evolution is one we should care about and invest in. What it shouldn’t be, however, is solitary. We’ve begun to think of ourselves as the sole contributors to both our success and our happiness, relying on development to fill in any empty space we feel in our hearts. In reality, our “enlightenment” only truly enlightens when we’ve acknowledged and invested in our communities.
There’s a section of the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex,” right there between your eyes, and this section fires up whenever you’re taking the good and necessary time to reflect on yourself and your life. The psychology field has largely thought of this as the center for self development, but new research is showing that the exact same region gets just as excited when we engage with relational activity, like discussing what our friends and family value or believe.
We are ourselves, yet we are also our people, and this is partly why the sole focus on self is not the true path to development. Your brain needs both types of excitement in order to understand itself and begin firing differently to other places of the brain–your decision-making frontal lobe, for example. Whether we want to or not, our social bonds are a crucial part of who we are and how we live our lives.
This probably isn’t as surprising as it sounds. To a certain degree, we have some self-awareness over the fact that we are made up of the people around us: what our parents instilled, what our friends believe, what our teachers taught, etc. You may have rolled your eyes at it growing up, but every time your parents or guardians said, “You are the company you keep,” they were right on the nose. It is pretty amazing that we’re seeing the literal proof of it in our brain chemistry, though, and it drives home even further the impact of a community.
If we are literally made up of our community, why aren’t we spending more time investing in it? We’re go-go-go-ing through our development, rushing alone to Mordor, and not pausing to realize some things are truly impossible to do without support. If you’re not thinking of your community as an extension of yourself, you should be. Communities are not indulgences, they are necessities!
I read this article a while ago but it has lived in my heart since, and I highly encourage you to take a read. Heck, if you abandon my blog at this point and only read the article, I’ll be just as happy! Jenny Anderson, the author of the piece, lost her brother to illness and watched with awe as her brother’s community stepped up to mourn him, care for his family–including herself, largely a stranger to them–, and remember him with reverence and kindness. It’s the kind of set up you’d expect to see in a movie in which Jenny is a lonely old miser who realizes the importance of loved ones only once she realizes her loneliness, but as she writes, she’s nothing of the sort: she has family and friends and an active social media presence. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re social beings, especially with the presence of social media; as long as we call our mothers and ask “how are you?” to the grocery store clerk, we check off our “social interaction” box and get back to what really matters: ourselves.
If you’re reading this and thinking of all your technological connections as your community, I’m going to challenge you to think harder about what that connection is made of. As I touched on in my last post, social media has given us a chance to connect with people all over the world: people we know and used to know.
I think this is wonderful, yet it’s important to keep awareness that social media should be a method of maintaining the relationship, not a substitute for it. High friend counts or a large amount of followers don’t fulfill the need for true connection. When we can catch up without ever really interacting, our social bonds deteriorate and fracture without us noticing. You know that so-and-so got a new job they love, and this knowledge of their life makes it feel like a connection even though you’ve not spoken to this person in years–or ever, even. We cannot interpret these impersonal “relationships” as our community, and research shows that the lack of true connection actually makes us feel lonelier. It’s like when you smell a delicious meal and it exacerbates your hunger, except you don’t end up eating it. That said, let me give an important distinction: creating and maintaining relationships through technology itself does not make them cheap or fake as long as you’re actually showing up for these people when it’s time. Frodo doesn’t see a majority of his friends for a good chunk of his journey, right? Online communities certainly have their place, thus with enough effort and attention those engagements are as meaningful as ever!
As stated in the article, the problem isn’t isolation. Chances are you aren’t isolated! We interact with human beings all day, every day! What we should pivot our question to is this: am I adequately supported?
That’s the big one, FitFam. Frodo had people who helped him along the way (elves who gave him a place to stay, a creature to show him the way, etc.) but they weren’t the ones who supported his journey. That task belonged to the fellowship. When life has knocked you down to the dirt and you’re dusty and grimey and on your 17th fall, do you have a community that will grab your elbows and dust you off? There’s a portion of the Anderson article that has stuck with me since I read it oh so long ago and I think on it constantly. She notes that we commonly think of community as the tasks: the brought dinners when Mom was sick, picking up the kids when you were stuck at work, the shoveling of your driveway…yet, it is so much bigger than that. She writes,
“I think community is also an insurance policy against life’s cruelty; a kind of immunity against loss and disappointment and rage.”
We don’t connect for what community gives us in the form of items or favors. Again, our brain is happiest with the connection itself; no ulterior motives required!
In the “Part 2” to this blog on community, I’ll delve into how to find your community if you’re realizing you don’t see it around you, or how to appreciate your community more if you’ve gotten caught up in the day-to-day. For now, though, I simply want to emphasize how necessary community really is, especially since the focus of this series as a whole is wellness. Your community is, in itself, a form of self-care. No matter how much you develop yourself, there will come a time when life comes at you so fast that all the meditation in the world won’t be enough to sustain you through that storm. You’re going to need a king, an elf, and a dwarf who manage the battles around you so you don’t have to fight them all. You’re going to need a wise old wizard who guides you. You’re going to need a devoted hobbit who refuses to give up on you. Much as you may want to, you cannot do this alone.
Give yourself permission to have a community, especially if it challenges your idea of self-development. It’s not meant to be a lonely journey, friends. There is nothing noble in suffering alone–find your community and lean.