3.26.2018

The Examined Life in Practice, Step 2: Building Healthy Community

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.


Step Two: 

As my last post began, we are social creatures and creatures of habit -- and these characteristics are both the characteristics that allow us to fall so easily into the unexamined life and the characteristics that allow us to escape it permanently and with an effective impact on a healthier today and tomorrow.

If you read my last two posts, you have the overview of your goal in community and have begun the process of considering your current community and how it impacts your identity and your habits and your life.

At this point, you are ready to begin the process of owning your own relationships and of choosing to shape them and to add to them with new relationships.

Evolution, not revolution:

The process of changing our community does not need to be a revolution, but can instead be an evolution, and, in my opinion, usually should be slow and reflective rather than abrupt and disruptive.  However, there are times when we have no choice except to rebuild big pieces of our community around us -- for instance, after a cross-country move or after a career change or divorce -- and there are times when you may be the one who chooses to make hugely disruptive changes.  I would urge you to get support for grief and trauma in these situations, or at least to prepare for grief and trauma.  I would also urge you to avoid plunging yourself into situations like this unless there is truly no other option.

I took a whole year off from my blog primarily because of the impact of that kind of change on my family in moving from California to Minnesota when my husband and I are past the years of forming our adult communities and when my youngest two children are teenagers.  It has been a very difficulty year in terms of community and adjustments, but most of the stories are not mine to tell.

However, the issues of this series that I was writing are exactly the issues of my life right now; so this is a perfect place to pick up the reality of how to build the healthy community that drives and shapes each of us.

We each need to keep tabs on our own disappointments and our own drives, and examine them for evidences of the ways we need both to grow in our self-management and to grow our communities.

The dance of connection, attention, and detachment:

Our movies and our faith communities and our cultural values have indoctrinated us with the idea that we only need to find the right church or the right spouse or the right small group of best friends.  Even if we consciously reject the idea of our emotional and practical needs being met by a single person or small group of people, we often have internalized that hope to such an extent that we keep being drawn to spend too much time in a limited number of relationships.

There is no way to make extra time, energy, or motivation for healthy relationships when we are consumed with fixing (or just enduring) unhealthy relationships.  The solution to this is probably not in the unhealthy relationship or in ending the unhealthy relationship, however.  The solution is is a practice of detachment from those relationships that does not sever the unhealthy relationship but rather helps you to internalize a shift in your expectations for that relationship.

I find this practice to be largely untaught and unpracticed in our culture.  We are taught either to redouble our efforts to make our marriage or church or friendship all that it could be, or we are urged to end imperfect relationships in search of better ones.  We are not taught how to maintain our imperfect relationships in a healthy way while broadening our sources of input and connection.

To restate my point: we do not build healthy community by looking for healthy people and discarding the unhealthy ones.  We build healthy community by learning the dance of connection, attention, and detachment that allows a bigger set of connections to get time and attention.

Finding healthier people to form your community:

So then, if we are not to discard people and chase healthier people and healthier relationships, do we just trust God or life with bringing the right people our way?  No, we assume a proactive stance that really SEES the people who cross our path and considers who they appear to be and how we feel about them and how they seem to feel about us.

To repeat the questions I listed in the last post:

1) do they only seek to teach me and train me, or are they open to being taught by me?

2) do they use shame to punish me when I do things differently than they think is best?

3) what shared values connect me to these people?

4) how do they support me in those shared values?

5) how do they treat people who have different values?

6) are they actually after our stated goals, or do they care more about ego gratification, control, maintaining the status quo, or their own sense of safety?

We find healthier people by choosing each day to be reflective about where we go and who we encounter, and then by considering our emotional response to them and their apparent response to us, as well as the answers to reflective questions.  Then we spend more of our attention and time on those who bring us joy and peace and encouragement toward the values we have and the life we want, and we spend less of our time on those who leave us depressed or angry or distracted from the things that really matter.

Does this mean we should never use a dating site or visit new churches or seek out new groups to join?  No, of course that is not what I am saying.

What I am saying is that the groups we join and the churches we attend and the places where we center our lives should fit the life we want in the long run, rather than being just a way to look for new friends, and that the process of building a good strong long-term network of healthy people around each of us is a lifetime building project for which their are few legitimate shortcuts.

Legitimate Shortcuts:

There are a few legitimate shortcuts, however.  They are the practices of healthy people, and will get you to the goal of healthy community faster than if you do not practice them.

They are:

1) Have reflective time alone each day to reflect on your life and your relationships, both analytically and intuitively (ie your thoughts and your emotions about them);
2) Pray for and about the people in your life, individually and as groups;
3) Give yourself permission to decrease your time with people that your emotions and analysis show as a current drain on your ability to be consciously moving toward an examined and chosen life;
4) Make slow movements toward growing relationships that you choose to grow;
and
5) be part of groups and churches and workplaces that are good fits for your values and choices.

Conclusion:

When we understand how thoroughly we are shaped by the people who have daily influence on our perceptions of ourselves and of the world, we must take steps toward building healthy community around us that will shape our future in the ways we desire.  Those steps are slow, daily, deliberative steps, and do not usually involve ending other relationships abruptly.  Rather, they involve daily self-management and daily responses that move us, over time, to a place where we have chosen the major players in our emotional lives and where we have cultivated a whole set of habits that allows us to continue to shape our communities over time.

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