I’ve made stabs at writing this post for a couple of months now, and I still don’t feel that it’s clear or complete. I will post it now anyway to mark a question I still wrestle with.
“Hunger is my native place in the land of the passions. Hunger for fellowship, hunger for righteousness--for a fellowship founded on righteousness, and a righteousness attained in fellowship.” --from Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld, translated by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjoberg
This quote spoke to me the first time I read it. Then I was thinking primarily of my wish to move further into economic integrity, and my sense that this wasn’t easy in this culture (perhaps it isn’t in any culture) and that I would have a better chance in good company. And I did find the fellowship I needed, with my mother and brother, with the Quaker Meeting in Portland, with other brief but helpful contacts that opened my way into the work and life to which I was called--work which took me to a distance where I lost touch with the many of people with whom I’d been in fellowship. Now I have work I love, and the gap between my convictions and my life is shrinking slowly. I am (when I remember to be) very grateful for this. Now I am more acutely conscious of the ‘hunger for fellowship’ part.
I’m blessed to be here with my mother and brother. I’m blessed by the deep and real connections that we sometimes experience with our neighbors and guests. I continue to wish for some more extended and permanent community of which we might be members--for neighbors who would come to us at times of celebration as well as times of trouble; for people whom we could know would be there for us; for people who know us well on many levels and are well known by us in the same way. Also for the ability to keep in tough with people over time and know whether or not we've really been able to offer anything that makes a difference.
Sometimes I think that I lack this because I’ve moved away from the place where I grew up, or because I’ve chosen to live in a way that strikes most people as odd in one way or another. I know people who work with their hands like me, who value practical capability, who have the understanding of limits and the satisfaction with a job well done which come from doing work with concrete and readily visible consequences (and, perhaps, from having limited financial resources). I know people who share many of my political convictions, tastes in reading etc. I don’t know many people who share both. But when I listen to the people around me I realize that many of them feel even less connected to and supported by other people than I do, although some of them are married or have churches and other groups which seem at first glance to answer the hunger for connection. I see the hunger for fellowship in myself and in many other people, and I wish I was clearer about the right way to deal with it.
I have known a few people who grew up in strong, multilayered communities that were given as much as chosen: a brother and sister who lived and farmed with three generations of extended family in a valley in NZ, with Maori neighbors, and a young man who grew up in a church whose members spent a lot of time studying, playing and visiting together and helping each other, and who also went to a small Christian school. These people seemed...unbroken in some way that most of my acquaintance who are my age or younger don’t. I don’t think their lives were idyllic; there were certainly times of tension, frustration, struggle with different understandings; but still there was this wholeness or certainty that they carried. I wasn’t born into a community like that, beyond my mother and brother. My extended family lives all over the country. I went to four different churches as I grew up; most of them were composed of people who met on Sunday and saw little of each other during the rest of the week. Our town was full of people who commuted away. We had satisfying relationships with various people--neighbors, relatives, friends from church or from two different homeschool groups--but we knew most of them in only one context, and many of them didn’t know one another. And many of those relationships didn’t survive my move to NY and the Catholic Worker.
I also know people who seem to find some of this sense of community and belonging in groups of like-minded people who may not live close together or know each other in different contexts. I’ve been at various functions--’gifted’ conferences, large Quaker gatherings etc--where I heard other people saying “Finally I’m with other people like me; I’m safe; I’m understood; I’m at home.” That wasn’t my experience, though I had some good conversations, learned some things, experienced some moments of real connection.
I guess I have a strong contrarian streak; in a group of liberals asserting their unity with each other and their separation from conservatives I find myself thinking (and usually talking) about the value of chastity, temperance, groundedness in scripture, commitment, personal responsibility, and also about particular fairly conservative folks whom I cherish and admire; in a group of conservatives asserting their unity with each other and their separation from liberals I find myself thinking (and usually talking) about the importance of social justice, environmental responsibility, humility, diversity, openmindedness, and also about particular fairly liberal folks whom I cherish and admire... I mean to make our connections richer and truer. I tend to irritate people. I can be excessive about this. I also think that there is a legitimate concern about groups of like-minded people--that we may end up overstating our similarities because we don’t want to lose the connection we have found. And this can become distorting and stifling internally, as well as creating difficulties in relating to the people whom we have defined as Not Like Us.
I’ve had better experiences with community based on shared work. Wholehearted and shared commitment to the task at hand can bond people who otherwise don’t seem to have much in common and generate a certain amount of trust and understanding. For me, so far, most of these connections haven’t been long-lived, but they have been gifts while they lasted.
Perhaps part of what I need to do is to stop clutching, stop focusing on what I wish I had and look more clearly at what I already have and what I can already do. I know a few things that I need to do in order to be open to true connection. I need to listen honestly to people, to see them as they are and not mentally reshape them to suit my desires. I need to speak and act honestly and not reshape myself to suit what I think they desire. I need to be dependable. And I need to remember and give thanks for all the moments of understanding, connection, help given with which I have been blessed, with which I have sometimes been able to bless other people. I hear from some of our guests that their time with us has given them clarity or courage to move further into righteousness themselves, and I know their visits have often had this effect on me. So whether or not we remain in obvious relationship we have helped each other further into the center, into God, into the place where we are one.