“Suddenly I realized – two people isn’t enough. You need backup. If there are only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least.”
~About A Boy, by Nick Hornby
“You will be too much for some people. Those aren’t your people.”
“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”
It was a long summer. I finally caught up by phone with my friend G last week and we filled each other in on some of what we’d been up to. G and I are best friends from college, and have known each other for twenty-six years now. She’s married with a ten year old son, I’m single and living in the city. This summer she found her stride leading weekends of deep healing at her church. I didn’t go to church at all this summer (I’m writing this in my parents’ quiet apartment as they attend church this morning) and made it to just two meetings of the small group I (sort of, obviously) attend. Both experiences have been healing for us.
I spent seven years living in an intentional Christian community. Seven years. Before that I was in seminary for eight years, and did a live-in internship, as well as various ministries — leading worship, teaching the Bible, facilitating small groups, leading youth group, teaching ESL, and traveling overseas to observe ministries there. In college I got so excited about the student ministry that I went to two small groups every week, in addition to the large group meeting. I have always craved community, and I have always tried to cram myself into it. And I have almost always left — or been forced to leave — with experiences of burn out and even trauma.
I know so many others who have had similar experiences to mine. Part of it is because of foundational flaws within the groups themselves — their theology, their power structures, their emphases, their focus on the needs of the majority to the detriment of those on the margins. Part of it, I think, is just the fundamental inability of people to get along with each other. The more people you have, the more perspectives and personalities, and the harder it is going to be to come up with a way of organizing ourselves that everyone agrees with.
But what are we supposed to do with this, given the other fundamental fact that we need each other?
I don’t know the answer to this question. But earlier this summer I spent a chunk of the little money I had in savings to fly to Seattle to see my aunt, cousins, and some dear friends I’d lived with in the community several years ago. The week I was there was one of the most beautiful of my life. I stayed part of the time with my friends and part with my aunt, and every day I spent with people who loved me and whom I loved, having great conversations, encouraging each other, cheering each other on. It was exactly what I’d always wanted community to be. Of course I was only there for a week, and I was on vacation, so that added to the idyllic nature of the trip. But it made me both happy and sad, to feel that kind of community I’d been searching for and then to leave it.
Near the end of my trip to Seattle I got the news that my father had fallen out of his wheelchair and been injured. I had plans to go up to Maine later in the summer, to see more old friends and some new ones and to eke out a little more vacation time, but instead I spent most of my free time driving up to help out my parents. Dad has a degenerative muscle disease that has slowly disabled him, and the fall gave him a concussion that seems to have advanced the disease. He is still faithfully doing ministry in the New Hampshire jails, but he has to be driven there in his wheelchair van. (You can read more about his work on his blog, Visiting Jesus in Prison.)
My dear friend and housemate, Mark, has been away since April. We moved from a three-bedroom apartment to a two-bedroom last summer, so with Mark away I have been living by myself. I love many things about being alone, but it has been a bit lonely, too. I email with Mark, and shoot texts to friends when I feel lonely, but I miss having a friend right there to touch in with every day. I don’t need — or want — a lot of interaction, but it is really good to be able to share a little bit about my day. I think I’ve been the worse for it, emotionally and intellectually. I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much: The little things I used to quickly process with Mark every evening have become jumbled up in my head so that the big themes can’t get out around them. He’s coming back this week, though, yay!
The thing about my friends in Seattle, and G, and Mark, is that they’re old friends. We’ve had conflict, but we moved through it, and our affection for each other is now firm. Settled. The only way to make more of that kind of friend, though, is to plow through the weeds with new friends. So last week I fought of inertia and social anxiety and went to the Labor Day cookout that my small group was having. I’ve been going there, sort of, on and off for a year now, and I was delighted to find this Monday that some of those friends are starting to feel like old friends. That community is starting to feel more like my community.
Of course now that I am settling in they’re changing it — the group has gotten too big so they’re going to split into two. When I heard this news I wondered who was going to lead the new group, and for a brief moment I thought, *I* know how to lead small groups. Then I laughed and shook my head. As grateful and proud I am of my friend G for being a leader at her church, I’m not ready to go back to that myself. I may never be. But I think I am slowly finding my own way of doing community. I am piecing community together like a quilt. Seattle friends and family stitched together with my parents in New Hampshire, Suzy, Gina, and Judi outside of Boston, Laura in Connecticut, Matt and Judith in Indianapolis, Miriam, Sarah, Claudia, and Ivy in Boston, Mark in the next room over. It is not as easy as going next door where 4-12+ people were hanging out on any given night. But it is also not as hard. Go figure.
If you are reading this and feeling lonely and excluded, first of all, you’re included here. I want my blog and all my writing to be inclusive and community-focused. If you’re here, you’re in, you’re one of us. Second, don’t give up. The place where you are — your church, your school, your current group of friends — might not be where you find your community, but you will find it. Your people are out there. And they are looking for you, too. The party isn’t complete without you.
Love this post. I’ve been feeling so lonely this summer. Everyone seems to have “their people” but I don’t seem to have mine. Paired with social anxiety and depression – it’s been rough.
I’m sorry it’s been a rough summer, Lana. I think if we could read people’s minds we’d see that a lot more people are lonely and feeling on the outside than we realize.
Such a thoughtful post, thanks for sharing the tough stuff,not just easy things.
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Thank you for writing about loneliness. It is a painful subject but a common thread these days, it would seem.
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You are one of my absolute favorite writers. Honest, warm, inviting. Thank you. I live in Boston. I don’t go out and socialize a lot because I have a kid, job, and a house, and honestly that is about all I can manage – especially while an introvert. But you bring me to times in my life when living near and around people has been so easy and fortifying (and also sometimes complex) and it’s not easy to find just the right balance. THANK YOU for this post. It really spoke to me and touched me. We’re not in person community but you speak to my deepest self and for that I am grateful.
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