"When you meet only at the point of poverty between you, it is as if you give birth to a ghost who would devour every shred of your affection." -- John O'Donohue *
I like this insight. It expresses something I have noticed between my husband and me, between my friends and me, really, between anyone I have regular contact with. As much as I value unity in diversity, and as much as I have learned about valuing the other, I recognize that I still have a tendency to judge some people's understanding as just plain wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but one thing I do know is that if I focus on this point of contention between us, I lose all sight of the goodness that is in that other person. And that's a problem. For, then, although there could be a more meaningful and enriching relationship, there is no relationship at all.
I've been reading M. Scott Peck's "The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace." I wish I had read this book years ago. It might have saved some real heartache for more than just myself. For through countless years of community building workshops, among very diverse groups of people who came together for very diverse purposes, Peck learned that communities, in order to become real, healthy, functioning communities, must go through specific stages. I'll describe them in a moment, but just knowing there are phases that must be reached and passed-through in order to achieve a better relationship is so hope-filled, that I couldn't help but share it.
The first stage of community is called Pseudocommunity. It's where you look at the other through rose-colored glasses, seeing and projecting only the positives, the commonalities. It's a phase of good manners and politeness, where conversation is kept at a very superficial level. Even though there may be serious differences between you, you ignore them, preferring to be friendly and not make waves. This is how we generally behave when we first meet someone, or first join a workplace, or a church. Unfortunately, it is not real. "The basic pretense of pseudocommunity is the denial of individual differences. The members pretend -- act as if -- they all have the same belief...even the same life history." (pg. 89) Have you ever kept your diverse opinions to yourself in order to not make waves? I think we all have. And if you want to keep your relationship with that person or community on a superficial level, then that's what you do.
If, however, you want to be a little more honest with yourself and with the other person, then you have to give voice to your differences. Doing so means entering the next phase of community making, called Chaos.
Chaos is as unpleasant as it sounds, but it's a stage that must be reached in order to achieve true community. In this stage, individual differences are out in the open for all to see. But differences sometimes threaten our own understanding, and we tend to respond to threats in not so healthy ways: we may separate ourselves from the one who is different or form cliques and gangs; we may try to convert the other to our way of thinking; we may actually verbally or physically abuse them; and, we may also resort to trying to resolve the differences in organizational constructions -- handing the issue off to a leader for ultimate decision, or to a committee subject to Robert's Rules of Order, or even calling for a democratic vote. None of these methods resolve conflict, however. And we all know that to be true. When did a ruling or even a majority vote ever change our own opinion?
No, Peck says, there is only one way through Chaos, and that is through Emptiness, through letting go of anything that gets in the way of communication. Some of the things we need to let go of are our preconceptions, our expectations, our prejudices, our ideology, our need to heal and fix things, our need to control, even, to some extent, our theology. "Such giving up is a sacrificial process.... And sacrifice hurts." So some communities revert back to pseudocommunity, get stuck in chaos, or disintegrate.
When asked if we needed to give up everything, Peck replied, "No... just everything that stands in your way." (pg. 100) This means that, without necessarily giving up your own understanding, you learn to become open to the understanding of the other. You acknowledge that your understanding fits your experiences, but you allow for the possibility that other experiences have led to other understandings. You acknowledge that you don't have all the answers and actually need the other person's point of view to some extent. If you can learn to let go of the things that stand in the way and accept the other as a unique individual with gifts as valuable to the whole group as your own, then you are on your way to being a real community, where decisions are reached by consensus, and everyone's opinion counts.
Many examples come to mind as I read these words of Peck, but I can't help thinking of my church. It was a pseudocommunity when I first became a member. It didn't take long for me to see that there were many differences between us, especially as regards to theology, religious practices, and political issues, but I could also see that these differences were rarely, if ever, given voice. Then our church-wide assembly adopted a Social Statement on Human Sexuality, which acknowledged our differences on the issue of same-sex marriage, and allowed both sides to be honored. Then all hell broke loose in our church. With the result that all our diversity spilled out, and our congregation split painfully along ideological lines. Some people who had been friends could be so no longer for they could not see past "the point of poverty" between them.
Maybe the split was necessary. After all, the debates that followed made us aware of so many of our differences: how we read the Bible, how we viewed sin, whether we thought homosexuality was a sin, what we wanted to teach our children, etc. However, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if we had been able to look past our points of contention and remember what we had in common: a love for Jesus, and a desire to honor God to the best of our ability. I wonder what would have happened if we had just been able to acknowledge our differences, accept them, and not let them stand in the way of loving one another, as the Social Statement on Human Sexuality encouraged us to do. Perhaps a more honest community would have resulted.
In my last posting, I described the television show Utopia. So far, it, too, perfectly illustrates the phases of community making. For, from the beginning, amidst this group of fifteen diverse people, there were
people that just wanted to be pleasant to one another, and there were people
that didn't care a fig about being pleasant; they just wanted things to
go their own way. That opened the door for some of the pleasant people to also express
their contrary opinions, just as ferociously, and the first couple of weeks in Utopia were truly chaotic. Slowly, they are learning to function as a group. For they are learning to let go of the things that stand in the way of communication. At least the ones who want to stay in community are letting go. The others are being encouraged to go, or choosing to leave the community on their own. I do, however, have great hopes for the ones who remain. I almost envy them their opportunity to form a really close community.
However, Peck cautions his readers to understand that making a real community is not a one-time deal. It is a continual process of moving from pseudocommunity, through chaos, and through emptiness to honoring individual differences, and back again. This rings true to me when I think of my marriage, my friendships, and my church. I keep thinking that at some point my relationships will function without any upheavals. But, so far, that hasn't happened. There's always some conflict to resolve.
Fortunately, Peck says that the sign of a healthy community, whether consisting of two people or more, is not that you never experience conflict, it's that you move through the stages, especially the stage of chaos, more quickly. You learn to recognize the communication blocks and let them go more quickly.
I can see glimmers of that kind of maturity in myself. I have done my share of fighting against, as well as trying to fix the other, for sure. But I have also done my share of honoring the other, and I am learning to do this more and more. So there's hope for me.
And hope for all of us, really. Don't you think? Maybe if more of us saw this big picture of what a real community looks like, and what it takes to make one, we would actually be better able to attain it in all of our relationships. Wouldn't then God's will be done on Earth as in Heaven? I think so.
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.
* from "Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue (Cliff Street Books ed, pg.12)