Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Community Practice

After living in intentional communities of three people for the past two and a half years, I can honestly say that no other experience has me more convinced of the fallen nature of humankind. I can never love other people the way God loves them. I'm not even talking about the destructive, self-denying "love" that is so often associated with divinity. I may know to speak up when I get angry, when I shouldn't take things personally, or when to listen to someone else speak up because they took something personally. I may know that community member A sees things differently than I do, and I may understand perfectly how both I see them and how A sees them. But it won't matter. I will still fail to be honest, to be patient, to be understanding.

In all of the myriad ways I can fail and on occasion succeed in community, I have found it best to center my awareness on just a few at a time. Or even like just one. Lately, I have been reflecting on one practice in particular: curiosity.

Marcia Lee, the assistant director of Cap Corps who has done graduate study on conflict resolution, often speaks of learning to approach others from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. This practice is actually easier to cultivate with people I hardly know and in unfamiliar cultural settings. For that reason, traveling abroad is an excellent exercise in developing curiosity, because so much of what I encounter falls outside the beaten tracks on which my thoughts normally travel. When I think I know a person well, I more freely assume I understand their motivations for acting the way they do. This assumption impedes vital communication. For example, someone says to me that they think Miskito people are ignorant, or that Muslims can't be trusted to hold public office in the US. Or even something less extreme like, "I think I'd prefer if you let me know before bringing guests over." Instead of being outraged or indignant, as enjoyable as those reactions may be, it tends to work better to think, "Wow, I would never ever have even thought to think about that the way you do. Can you explain to me why you feel that way?" I'm trying to program this as a default response, even when I think I understand where a person is coming from. It facilitates better communication, and it's much easier on my nervous system. While it's still a work in progress, my preliminary findings suggest that curiosity can be a gateway practice that opens up towards other practices that have deeper spiritual significance, like compassion, patience, and serenity.

It never gets easier. Living in community, or in authentic relationship more generally, entails a ridiculous amount of work that often feels like it's not going anywhere. I have to believe that the very practice of intentional relationship, like meditation, is inherently worthwhile, rather than a means to attain affection, worth, or stability. I do it because I'm called to it, not because it will bring me some revelation of God. Maybe in accepting that, and accepting that I will sometimes fail to be fully curious about the people that surround me, I will stumble into that serenity.

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