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Why we need community living

Ingrained in the human psyche is a need for community. We long to be a part of something greater than ourselves. According to Penny Elsley, founder of the non-government organisation, Joining The Dots, “When we are aware of our connection with all living beings we find the strength, courage and imperative to love one another, to reach out to others and to care for the entire sacred ecosystem which holds us.” Research by the Search Institute has identified the 40 Developmental Assets for the healthy development of young people. Integral to the development and wellbeing of a young person is family support, a close relationship with three or more non-parent adults, a caring neighbourhood and a caring school climate. Yet there is a danger that the current generation of children may shift from a community-centred mentality to a me-centred existence. Whether it has been deliberate or not, the release of iPhones, iPods, iMacs, iPads, iTunes and even iSnack 2.0 has successfully put the notion of “I” at the centre of mainstream thought, relegating community to the background.

Why do we need community?

According to Beyond Blue, a national depression initiative, about one in five Australians experience depression at some stage of their lives. As a nation of individuals, we have a problem with answering the question: Who am I? Instead of asking ourselves, “Who are we?”, we focus solely on ourselves and, as a result, feel inadequate when we are unable to tick all the boxes. We strive for independence and self-sufficiency. Our notion of success depends on our ability to survive on our own merits.

Yet, as individuals, we possess qualities that interweave with and complement those of others. Completion can only be achieved when we engage in community life, allowing aspects of ourselves to merge with aspects of others. While monastic life is a novel concept today, monasteries such as the Benedictine community of Jamberoo, New South Wales, continue to function as vibrant communities. Sr Hildegard OSB, who lives at the Jamberoo Abbey, speaks of the daily ritual of the sisters:

“We rise in the early hours of the morning … we hear the song of love in the silent act of profound adoration … the song continues in the words of the psalms and the rhythm of the monastic chant.” These community rituals practised by the Benedictine sisters reawaken an ancient yearning for wholeness of self. For it is through community wholeness that wholeness of self can be attained.

Online media and social networking sites lure us into virtual communities. By sitting alone on our computers we are made to feel surrounded by “friends”, who may only be a name and a photo on a computer screen. The use of portable technologies such as iPhones and iPads create the illusion of connection, which disengages us from our immediate communities, families, neighbours and even ourselves. We don’t have time to spend being present with family and friends when the lure of technological connection is so strong.

Your community

Living in a society that values independence and self-sufficiency does not prevent you from experiencing the life-giving and transformative power of community. The first step, ironically, is to take a step back and acknowledge the existing communities in your life. Ask yourself the question: Are the communities I am a part of — within my neighbourhood, friendship circles, church, gym or family — life-giving? Do they bring out the best in me? Do they allow me to give as well as receive? Your purpose as a member of a community is to be fed and nourished but also to feed and nourish others. Your community is your rock, your backbone and your springboard into the world.

Each person is called to experience community in their own unique way. Regardless of the nature, form or demands of your community, when you invest time and energy into your community, you simultaneously invest time into your own wellbeing. Community time is soul time. It allows us to gain full appreciation of ourselves as beings greater than the here and now.

Make yourself known within your neighbourhood and get to know people. It is one thing to learn names and faces. It is another to know the person behind the exterior. Make a decision to emerge from the shadows. Buy some wool and knit your neighbour a scarf. Host a street party. Volunteer for a local charity. Join a book club. Most importantly, nurture your relationships. As humans, we are quick to move on when life becomes routine. The true treasures of community come with time.

A global community

The Dalai Lama talks of a global community: “Whether we like it or not, we have all been born on this earth as part of one great human family. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated … ultimately, each of us is just a human being like everyone else: we all desire happiness and do not want suffering.”

While smaller local communities are indeed essential to our personal wellbeing, acknowledgment of a universal community further engages us with our human identity. By accepting the interconnectedness of humanity and all parts of the cosmos, we emerge as beings greater than our personal circumstances. Today, events in one part of the world will eventually affect the entire planet; therefore, treating ourselves as self-sufficient, isolated individuals is not only detrimental to oneself … it just doesn’t make sense.

Never before has interfaith dialogue been so important. Organisations such as Affinity, an intercultural foundation designed to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims, are vital propagators of a global community. Take the time to attend a mosque open day, celebrate Chinese New Year, acknowledge the Sabbath. You are not an isolated individual. Nor are you defined by a limited geographical area. We all walk the same earth, arise to the same sun and sleep under the same stars. By engaging in interfaith and intercultural dialogue you will not only experience the ancient wisdom of another culture, but you will learn to recognise a fundamental human core that transcends culture. Indeed, you will find your place within an expansive global community.

Re-connect

In early 2010, Penny Elsley, a 35-year-old Australian woman from the NSW Central Coast, founded a non-government organisation called Joining The Dots. The inspiration for her project came during a visit to Mermier bal Ashram in Mumbai, India. “One day, we were walking through a nearby slum to visit one of the day care centres and I found myself literally walking along a drain with my feet on either side of it, hoping not to fall in! Lining this drain on both sides were dwellings made of tin, cardboard and other scrap materials — what the residents of this place called ‘home’ … “What happened next was something totally unexpected and more shocking to me than any of the sights before my eyes. As I passed these dwellings, women came out and smiled big happy smiles at me, saying ‘Welcome!’ These women were willing to rise above any kind of need to protect their own dignity in order to make me feel welcome.” Penny refers to this moment as an epiphany. “I gained an inside-out perspective on happiness … we are poor because we are conditioned to disconnect. They are rich because they are able to connect … because they know they need each other.”

 

Penny has taken the human need for real connection and community to another level. Integral to the vision for Joining The Dots is a world where people of the global north have real-life connections with young people of the global south that result in transformed lives and communities. Penny’s dream is to connect people and communities from all over the world and, in doing so, to start a revolution. We are entering an era that cannot be sustained without recognition of an all-encompassing, colourful, global community.

To ground yourself in a positive community environment is to nurture the roots of your humanity. Break free from a culture of disconnection and share with others the blessings of a community experience. Most importantly, tap into an ancient yearning that is masked by a virtual world. Real community will never be virtual. Explore it, experience it and, most of all, share it.

Ashleigh Green is a Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney who is passionate about issues of social justice.

 

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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