Being in community — especially a community committed to inclusion and diversity — can sometimes be challenging. Henri Nouwen, a spiritual teacher and activist, once wrote that community is “the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
It can be tough to stay with any relationships over a long period of time. The more differences between you and another person, the more opportunities for misunderstanding and genuine conflict. Sticking with any relationships through the tough as well as the tender times is both one of the greatest human challenges — and one of our richest learning experiences.
And that’s true of community, which is a kind of relationship. Brené Brown has said,
True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.
And of course, with people we label “difficult,” we wish they could change, and be better able to fit in with our expectations and comfort level. Sometimes, behavior is so threatening to the ability of the others in the relationship to also be who they are, that we set soft or hard boundaries.
And yet, community is often “the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Parker Palmer extended this thought: “Community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives. And when that person moves away, someone else arises to take his or her place.” Because if as a person or a community, we don’t learn to elicit the best from people, and instead focus on kicking them out or freezing them out if they are what we call “difficult,” one of the next persons to arrive will fill in that “difficult person” slot in our lives.
We can believe that within the “difficult person” is a better self. Then we can figure out how we can act differently, to make it more likely their better self will emerge. We don’t have to passively hope that the person can learn and grow. We can be clear about what we will and won’t tolerate, we can set boundaries on behavior. That isn’t necessarily easy.
Ah, but Nouwen completes his thought in a different direction than Parker does. “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives … That person is always in your community somewhere; in the eyes of others, you might be that person.”
Now there’s a perspective to consider. We are likely all someone else’s “difficult person.” And we would like to find a community where people also strive to bring out our best selves, not just kick us out or freeze us out.
Community isn’t always easy — if it was, it would likely be pseudo-community (more on that in the platform meeting 1/28).
So this month, consider your/our own mistakes we’ve made, in trying to belong in community. What might bring out our own best? What might bring out the best in those with whom we find interaction less easy?