It All Depends: A Position in Support of Social Engagement

Isolation is corrosive. This intuition nags at us as we slather on sunscreen and reach for a cold drink; reclining in our lounge chairs and adjusting the ear buds that pipe in our epic playlists, we watch the SUVs parade by, averting our eyes from the strange but eerily familiar neighbors we pray won’t acknowledge or even notice us. We feel a vague longing to be seen, to know more about what goes on out there—where our eyes can see but our feet will never take us. But then the nervous recoil: we are busy, exhausted, brittle. What if we’re not met with warmth? What if there is too much warmth? What if we get trapped? What if we get dropped?

All wise questions, grounded in our lived experience of needing others but encountering indifference or, worse, reproach. In the background we hear the faint echo of a warning that harks back to the Pleistocene age, when being left behind meant sure death for our foraging ancestors. Death from rejection is not as sure today in our corner of the world, at least not for most Americans, not in any immediate way. But we are recognizing more and more the physical and emotional effects of feeling left behind—sometimes quite serious effects, which reveal the powerful relationships between social ties and health that linger from our foraging past. We suffer when we avoid each other, even when we do it as a protection.

Social Engagement Keeps Us Healthy
Evidence from many domains of research suggests that we are evolved to be healthiest and happiest when we are striving together—actually in close contact—and depending on each other to meet our needs. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s bestselling analysis of growing isolation in American life, Bowling Alone (2000), offers sobering statistics correlating social capital with a variety of conditions widely associated with health and wellbeing, including increased immune function, longer life expectancy, more economic stability and safer neighborhoods. Putnam’s research confirms that people who are embedded in highly participatory communities—an array of civic associations, voluntary organizations, and informal networks of mutual care—enjoy healthier, happier lives.

Social capital derives its value from the trust we come to place on those in our networks cooperating with us to create sustainable benefit. In her account of the evolution of breeding and childrearing practices, the celebrated anthropologist Sarah Blather Hrdy (2009) underscores the important role that cooperation played historically in ensuring the sustainability of the human species. Hrdy traces the origins of human cooperation to new skills for mutual understanding and emotional resonance that evolved during an age when various recurring dilemmas, such as sporadic food supplies and unpredictable climate changes, demanded explicit practices that would distribute responsibility for ensuring the survival of offspring to weaning and self-feeding. The Pleistocene human child had no hope of surviving if its mother could not rely on her community to collaborate in caring for it. The demand to cooperate called forth the development of mind-reading skills, sophisticated capabilities for reading and evaluating others’ intentions. Even now, this human ability continues to sustain us by facilitating the process in which caregivers and infants engage to form the secure attachments that foster our prosocial sensibilities.

In the field of psychology, John Bowlby’s notion of attachment (1969) gets at the important role this kind of mutual understanding plays in ensuring mother and infant can work adequately well together, creating a context of care that exerts a shaping influence on the infant’s character well into adulthood. Bowlby’s theory, which has become a cornerstone in human development models, was most notably supplemented by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s (Ainsworth et al., 1979) and by Main and Solomon a decade later (1986). Neuroscience weighed in on the topic in the mid-1990s positing mirror neurons as one physical medium by which attachment dynamics most likely take place (e.g., Gallese et al., 1996; but see also Gallese et al., 2001 and Fogassi et al., 2005 for more recent applications to empathy studies). Psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel’s work synthesizes all these important contributions into a framework for understanding the influence the caregiving surround exerts on the human brain in early childhood in ways that influence us profoundly throughout our adult lives (Siegel, 1999 and 2009).

Yet much of this research assumes the mother/child dyad to hold sway as the singular point of entry through which this health and growth promoting attunement flows. Taking issue with this assumption, Sarah Hrdy widens the usual mother/child dyad focus of attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology to take into account the important role that alloparents (literally, others nearby who parent) have played historically in providing a community of care for children. The village community not only complemented but actually enabled adequate mothering.

Hrdy shows that infants are wired to read others’ intentions—not just mothers’—and when those intentions promise investment in their well-being, infants feel hope and reach for care. Clearly something like this scanning for investment continues into adulthood, as mothers sense when their families, clans or tribes intend to share in caring for their newborns. In foraging cultures when that investment is missing, mothers are known to abandon their infants. Hrdy wonders whether a similar kind of resignation may be operating in the contemporary correlations found between postpartum depression and a new mother’s perception that she receives low social support. Perhaps most depression is a despairing response to signals that in some way we will not have the support of our social environment. Putnam’s statistics would seem to lend weight to this position, linking all sorts of problems—emotional, intellectual, medical and economic—with social disengagement.

Restating the position more emphatically, putting our capacities for cooperation and mutual understanding to use by organizing our lives in collaborative ways activates a two-million-year-old potential for strength and resiliency. But attempts at collaboration often go awry, as they surely must have gone again and again in the last two million years, inspiring frustration or even dread precisely because those attempts can deliver us into sheer chaos or deep disappointment.

However, We are Isolating More and More
Certainly, the inclination to think of ourselves as isolated, bounded beings reaches back for millennia (Wheeler, 2000; Taylor, 1992). But Putnam illustrates how habits of enacting isolation ballooned particularly in the U.S. somewhere around the mid-20th century, and offers some tentative explanations. Demographic changes have increased the complexity of our collective life, making critical tasks like planning and coordinating action with others more difficult (Putnam & Goss, 2002). Generational succession (from the Civic Participants born in the 1920s and 1930s to the Baby Boomers born from the 1940s through the 1960s) is another significant factor, according to Putnam, with the advancement of virtual technologies and increases in viewing or spectator leisure activities introducing a menu of alternatives to the community engagement associated with the civic generation. In fact, Putnam apportions the greatest part of the blame to this generational drift, underscoring how this gradual replacement has ushered in different values and beliefs that tap deeper into the vein of rugged individualism flowing within American culture.

Underlying all of the factors Putnam highlights are the themes of change and difference, two constants in life that nevertheless can unsettle or even terrify us when they happen too quickly or too drastically. Our changing cultural situation, for example, has thrown us all into close proximity with many different human varieties—ethnicities, colors, sexualities, cultures, etc. What once was remote or even unheard of is now right at our doorsteps. It is no surprise that many of the communities to which we can point as models of a well-coordinated and harmonious collective are also noticeably homogeneous. While we do have an evolved capacity for reading others’ intentions, we have never before been forced to use it in such complex contexts. If we cannot read the people who live in our village, then how can we trust the village to be invested in our well-being? There is an important connection between the difficulties we have reading each other and our recoil from communal forms of life.

Still another issue stands as a barrier to social engagement, particularly for disenfranchised groups such as those living in poverty, people of color, sexual minorities, and the chronically disabled. Robert Wuthnow (2002) speculates on the declines in civic participation outlined in Putnam’s work, reminding us that social capital is capital, after all, and therefore may be said to function in an exclusionary way, “causing some segments of the population to feel unwelcome and to cease participating, or failing to provide the resources that people need to engage in civic activities” (p. 79). The bonds of trust that tie individuals to each other and to their tribe are bonds that exclude as sure as they include. And exclusion is the operative signal that we have been left behind.

But if we do not have the village, we must take care of ourselves. Self-reliance, more than a mere coping strategy, is a virtue in American culture and the very essence of the rugged individual. We are proud of our independence. Yet we can see how impossible it is to avoid depending on support. Our options are not to be dependent or independent; our options lie in the things on which we can depend. Mostly, we feel more secure when we have immediate access to the things we need and we feel most worried when that access is blocked. If we cannot count on others to participate in ensuring our needs our met, then naturally we need to have control over the resources on which we rely.

But settling on control as a means for security introduces an interesting polarity. We feel dread when we are not in control precisely because we are likely to be mishandled or even annihilated at the mercy of those who cannot read us and whom we cannot read. And to complicate matters, those who have little control over needed resources inspire our dread, so we work to distance ourselves from “them.” At the same time we hunger to be taken care of (e.g., pampered, tended to, catered to). So the only acceptable arrangement—bringing our need for control together with our need to be cared for—leads us to our penchant for purchasing services. We tend to think of our ability to access what we need as “independence,” distracting us from the core issue of control (Fairfield and O’Shea, 2008). We cannot tolerate surrendering to the mercy of others but we also cannot tolerate forgoing the feeling of being cared for. So instead we assume a compromised position of spectator: we see the possibilities of care and somehow want to keep them in our line of vision, but only at a distance.

With interdependency on the other side of the glass, we are left alone with our limited options for coping. The need to find a substitute for the care and attention of others—something we know instinctively will make us feel more secure—compels us to produce endless stimulating and soothing products and activities that mimic social engagement. The list is infinite: video games, unlimited satellite channels, slot machines, virtual reality and simulation games, avatars, twittering, social networking, and especially the interactions we crave with skilled sales people who delight with us in our consumption habits.

We have many ways to fend off our worries about being misunderstood, disappointed, hurt, dropped—left behind. We have medications we can take to transport us momentarily from our dread. We have endless diversions to superimpose on our loneliness. We can shop. We can dine. We can drink. We can play. But nothing we do on our own will dispel the curse of isolation. Even when we are most amused, our human neurobiology is taking stock of how dense or meager are our social networks, calculating the costs and benefits for each of us to take up space in the world and breathe the air so many others need. We are constantly responding to the quality of our relationship with our context.

Why interventions perpetuate the problem
In America, we place responsibility for wellness squarely on the individual. But holding an individual responsible for what has been culturally constructed creates suffering by leaving that person alone to wrestle with a problem that cannot be understood alone. Any help will recognize where the problem began and offer strategies to address the conditions creating and maintaining it. In our current cultural situation, this requires a paradigm shift toward holistic, integrative solutions.

Interventions that prioritize withdrawal from the environment in lieu of social engagement do not achieve this kind of help. The following example illustrates how this happens.

How Jan became self-reliant
Jan is a 43-year-old single, obese woman who lives alone and is anxious most of the time. Her support network is meager. She is terrified of social situations because she assumes she stands out in crowds, an object of disgust and derision. When she has to go out in public, she frets for days trying to find some way to avoid her inevitable shame. She cannot sleep without medication. Jan’s doctor informs her that he will not refill her Ambien prescription unless she agrees to see a psychotherapist. She reluctantly consents.

Bob is Jan’s new therapist. Each week he faithfully listens to her difficulties, while feeling overwhelmed and burdened himself. He becomes anxious when Jan pleads with him for help. It feels like more responsibility than he can carry, as if she is putting her whole weight against him, crying out, “I cannot support myself at all, so you do it for me.” But Bob says none of this to Jan, showing her only positive regard and at least the appearance of interest. He will not share his feelings with Jan because such self-disclosure is avoided in his profession.

After several sessions, Bob finds himself focusing on helping Jan get to the bottom of her anxiety. He suggests a workbook she can buy that will help her track her thoughts to identify distorted perceptions and self-defeating beliefs. This process repeatedly invites Jan to consider what she has been attributing to a lack of care from others as a product of her habits of thought.

Bob wants to instill hope and stimulate more creativity by offering alternative storylines that leverage a different logic that hadn’t occurred to Jan. These are more optimistic threads to weave into Jan’s plot, but threads that seem to Jan to come out of nowhere. Or, she comes to think, perhaps we merely invent all the threads of our lives. The thread Bob weaves into Jan’s story reminds her that, in fact, this is a story after all, and one that she creates in her own mind. When she looks to others for answers, she misses her opportunity to create a different reality.

Eventually Jan starts to notice a sparkle in the thread Bob has offered her. She takes to the idea that she might have more power than she realizes. If only she could focus less on how the world treats her and concentrate more on what she wants for herself. So she tries to persuade herself that if other people are unreliable, she doesn’t actually need them. She starts to spin a new story of self-reliance.

Inspired by Jan’s newfound motivation to change, Bob points to some additional resources she could access. He suggests she join a meditation group. Despite her apprehension, Jan starts attending the group regularly.

Surprisingly, within a few weeks Jan actually feels some relief from her anxiety. She is sleeping better, feeling more relaxed and more comfortable in her body. Jan can see how with time and more practice she will have a greater capacity to regulate herself. Of course, she will still come unraveled when confronted by contempt like that displayed by a mindful neighbor when he discovers she has claimed his spot on the floor. She will still be horrified when the woman nearby glares at her as she accidentally brushes her big toe. But she will soon be able to acknowledge these troubles and then let them go. She is learning not to attach and react. This feels far less frustrating and much more comforting.

Jan has found a resource to lean on when she feels afraid and ashamed. It requires pulling back and going within. And that’s okay—she is used to solitude. And she cannot really count on anyone else anyway. But at the end of the day, she can count on herself.

The problem with self-reliance
With increased self-reliance, Jan was able to calm herself over time and tolerate the persistent anxiety signals. But without interdependency, she did not have the information she needed to make sense of those signals. With more self-reliance, Jan became more competent to dissociate from her dread. But without interdependency, her latent capabilities for mutual understanding and cooperation would not emerge to help her discern what was so unsafe about her world. With increased self-reliance, Jan could create a private sanctuary and feel safe. But without interdependency, she did not belong to a community that would look after her safety.

Our emotional states reflect our social context in profound ways. Reading them as individual, personal experiences not only misses the point but also cuts us off dangerously from the information that makes emotions intelligible and useful—like the grief that tells us something integral to our stable identities has gone away and we are forever changed. Still, whether or not we understand how it is socially constructed, despair makes us feel sick, sending us in the direction of seeking a cure. If we turn to psychotherapy, we hear a familiar call to self-discovery—the cure within.

The central concern among psychologists for roughly the last 50 years has been to develop strategies to change the way we feel, even if our situations are grim. This approach, loosely referred to as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has dominated the scientific literature, while simultaneously working its way into the popular psychology and self-help markets. The titles alone of popular books of the last decade say it all: How to refuse to make yourself miserable about anything: Yes anything! (Ellis, 2003a); Thoughts & feelings: Taking control of your moods and your life (Workbook) (McKay, Davis & Fanning, 2007); and Feeling good: The new mood therapy (Burns, 2000). The goal is to feel good, regardless of our condition. It fits perfectly with our desperate need to be in control.

Spirituality has been invoked for similar purposes. We borrow practices that come from deeply engaged faith communities and then use them for the purpose of enhancing retreat. Certainly mindfulness can help us to stay engaged with environments that trouble us, but our attitudes about social engagement continue to constrain our interest in relying on mindfulness to that end. Instead, we are using meditation to insulate ourselves from each other.

But the neurobiological evidence demonstrates how our emotions are regulated and revised in relationship. Neuroscientists Lewis, Amini and Lannon (2001) describe how mutual resonance serves to keep human beings well supported through a process they call limbic regulation:
“The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites. In a closed-loop design, each body would self-monitor levels and self-administer correctives, keeping its solitary system in continuous harmonious balance.

“But because human physiology is (at least in part) an open-loop arrangement, an individual does not direct all of his own functions. A second person transmits regulator information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function, and more—inside the body of the first. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated. Neither is a functioning whole on his own; each has open loops that only somebody else can complete. Together they create a stable, properly balanced pair of organisms. And the two trade their complementary data through the open channel their limbic connection provides” (pp. 85-86).

Study after study shows how social networks have a direct positive impact on our health (e.g., House, Landis & Umberson, 1988; Schwarzer & Leppin, 1991; Berkman, 1995; Seeman, 1996). We only need to review Putnam’s statistics to see the converse: we are sicker, poorer and dumber the more disengaged we are from each other.

While solitude has its place in human experience and certainly can help quiet us when we are beside ourselves with rage, pain or terror, it does not touch our despair, that cavernous feeling that looms when we see no human connection in sight. When solitude is temporary, it is a balm to the soul, a respite from the struggle, a chance to recover so that we can return to life. But when it sprawls for miles upon miles, solitude offers no hope other than a quiet place to hide, sleep, and eventually die.

Finding Our Way Together
We need help, but not the kind that turns us back upon ourselves and sends us away to pull it together. And we need skill, but not the kind that makes us experts at not needing anyone. And we need opportunities for participation, but not the kinds that overburden us. So how do we get what we need? If interdependency is such a crucial ingredient in solving problems, then how can we work together to reduce our isolation?

Recover: A way to heal the trauma we suffer in isolation
Trauma is a rupture in the wholeness of our being. As when a limb has been torn from the body, we are traumatized when any part of our experience is severed from the context that will make it intelligible. To heal trauma we must therefore foster continuity wherever these ruptures may have occurred. What we have been discussing is an insidious but barely noticeable disconnect between our feelings and the situations that provoke them. The help we are offered when those feelings are unhappy has tended to obscure the fact that we feel the way we do for good reasons, reasons we can understand if we read our contexts closely.

The most obvious way to restore continuity with our context is to reconnect with the people in our environments who can bear witness to who we are and who can recognize what we have lost as a result of our injuries. If psychotherapy can offer us any help, it is because its healing medium is relationship. When that relationship cultivates the conditions of mutual attunement, it heals trauma through a shared embodied resonance that activates integrative and health promoting conditions. But attunement by definition requires a two-way attention, not the typical one-way focus of traditional psychotherapy.

So what sort of psychotherapy can create mutuality of this kind? Perhaps psychotherapists should be engaging in something other than what we have come to understand as psychotherapy. Or maybe we could think about the activities of psychotherapy as support for development rather than a cure for illness (even if some of the time a medical doctor participates in the endeavor). Could we think of psychotherapy as a process of mentoring? We might then understand therapists as leaders who step out in risky ways to try what the rest of us need encouragement to do, who give a running commentary on what they are learning out on that limb, who stimulate such risk taking all around them by drawing attention to their own struggles and frailties.

Some contemporary approaches have positioned psychotherapists to take the lead in just this way. While each school of thought will tend to emphasize something different in the story of healing, some have arrived at a similar conclusion: a “dialogic” model of psychotherapy that cultivates mutual understanding (e.g., Gergen, 2009; Hycner and Jacobs, 1996; Shotter, 1993). This model promotes collaboration and mutuality, requiring the therapist’s transparency, presence and acknowledgment of bias—granting clients access to what they can already read but need a discursive process to confirm.

Drawing upon these collaborative practices, psychotherapy will accelerate our recovery by capitalizing on our wired capacities for wellness through relating. Even better, these practices can support both therapists and their clients to build the skills we all need in order to engage in cooperative action, something we have identified as an experience that correlates closely with health and wellness.

Relearn: A way to build the skills we need for connection
If we can turn to psychotherapy for healing and find it, it will also be because helpful psychotherapists will themselves be developing the skills we all need to be using if we are to actualize our evolved capability. Then we can follow their lead with confidence that we too will build those skills.

We are innately capable of reading each other’s minds, sensing one another’s mood, intuiting what intimates and neighbors want from us and want for us. When we stop tuning in to others, these basic capabilities are of little help. But these implicit ways of knowing are merely the broadest brush strokes forming the bigger picture; they help us survive in crude circumstances but they do not necessarily prepare us for the complex challenges that characterize contemporary developed worlds. Many of the problems that weaken our social bonds we created in our efforts to generate alternatives to interdependency. To address these problems we will have to create different, more explicit solutions.

At the top of the list of explicit solutions is a practice of conversation that generates inclusion, understanding and respect, precisely when we are most wary and dismissive. While we have an exquisite capacity to read contexts, the complexity of our social contexts requires more sophisticated reading skills. The conversational practice we need involves three skills: appreciation, transparency, and collaboration.

Appreciation: Making sense of novelty
When we encounter something foreign, we often consider it unreasonable when it does not make sense from our perspective. In other words, what we cannot fit meaningfully into the patterns we already understand becomes something to attack or eliminate rather than something to learn more about.

Confronted by this jarring difference, we need inquiry practices that help us appreciate the unexpected. We can greet the unexpected by assuming that what confronts us is wise or reasonable from within a particular frame of reference. We can then gather information about the frame, searching for a basic lexicon of meanings that anchor to the context we are trying to understand. From there we can move into a range of abstractions that will make sense in reference to this lexicon.

Reading contexts this way helps us not only in the typical cross-cultural interactions that routinely confound us, but also in more subtly jarring interactions we might have with those already familiar to us. For example, a family member suddenly starts ranting about something that takes us completely by surprise, because it doesn’t fit meaningfully with what we already know. Instead of reacting with anger or defensiveness, we assume that what he is saying must make sense from a frame of reference we are not yet privy to. So we ask some questions to understand what has prompted his rant, and discover he has assumed we already understand the context in which his protest makes sense to him, which we can then probe to create a shared understanding. The assumption of understanding can itself set us on the wrong course.

Psychotherapists model this approach when they assess each client’s situation with a starting assumption that the client’s perspective is embedded in a particular social location – and that the therapist cannot by default have access to that location. From here an understanding of the problem unfolds that recognizes the salience of that problem relative to its context. Recognizing how a perspective is reasonable (rather than how it is “distorted”), helpful psychotherapists demonstrate appreciation for the way experience can seem and feel from multiple perspectives. We all need someone to respond to our perspectives in this way and we all need to learn how to offer this kind of response to others.

Transparency: Granting others access
Equally as important is our capacity to grant others access to our own perspectives. To increase the odds that others will rely on the same inquiry practices we strive to employ, we find ways to reveal what is going on for us at different levels.

First we speak to what we are feeling about a given situation. Because we are wired for mutual understanding based on emotional cues, sharing information about our feelings discursively will compensate when intuition fails to inform us, as it often does in unfamiliar situations. Then we try to describe our thinking process, including what kinds of conclusions we are drawing. Our conclusions are microscopic decisions we continually make about who other people are and what they intend. The more we let others know what decisions we are making about them, the more they will notice the possibilities they have for influencing us.

Psychotherapists model transparency when they step out from behind their neutral, professional covers and step into more vulnerable contact with us. We do not necessarily need or want our therapists to tell detailed stories about their personal lives, but we do need them to share how our work together is impacting them in different ways as well as how their own needs and hopes may be shaping the conclusions they are drawing about us.

Collaboration: Constructing our discourse together
To really collaborate, we have to involve each other in the ways we think and speak. Consider the difference between the effects of these paired statements. “Those people are freeloaders,” becomes, “I wonder what we are doing to make a welfare system that doesn’t carry some people into greater economic health?” Or closer to home, “You are an idiot” becomes “How are we treating each other in such a way that I stop respecting you?”

Even subtle shifts in the way we think and speak can underscore how we are all cooperating all the time through shared discourses. We forget this because of course the thoughts and words we usually weave together spin a tale of isolated, bounded being. But we can tell a different story. In doing so, we can create opportunities for more rewarding social engagement.

Psychotherapists demonstrate this skill when they invite us to participate in shaping ideas about what we need and what we might do about it. Rather than observing and diagnosing us, collaborative therapists will state what they are experiencing (as indicated in the previous section) and then engage us in making sense of that experience in terms of implications for change. We need to participate with our therapists in drawing conclusions and planning action.

The commitment to appreciative inquiry, transparent responding and collaborative discourse is hard to keep. It takes both skill and discipline. To develop these skills we must expect and even welcome frustration and anxiety since these are normal reactions to daunting tasks. We know this very well despite all the messages we get about how good we should feel all the time.

Whether frustrated, anxious or happy, we do what we do to make the world into what we need it to be. So how shall we shape things in ways that keep us together, attuned and growing?

Rejoin: A way to participate in active community
Better attuned and more skilled dialogically, we are on our way to stronger social ties. But while one-on-one connections certainly get us on the right path, the scale we are looking for here is closer to, say, a tribe or village. The benefits to health and wellness are greatest in actively engaged communities. The ground for this kind of engagement is the attuned, discursive contact whose preconditions we have been discussing so far. But coordinated collective action is also necessary to keep a community going.

The very act of doing something collaboratively changes the environment in ways that improve our health. But collaboration goes beyond merely doing things side-by-side. If you are doing your own thing and I am doing mine, we are still not engaging in interdependent ways. In parallel play we can certainly benefit from each other’s presence—assuming we are both in good moods—but not from the stimulus that comes with having to work out solutions together.

In those few states in the U.S. scoring high on Putnam’s social capital index we find communities full of opportunities for collective action, including parent teacher associations, neighborhood associations, social clubs, and voluntary organizations. Some elements these opportunities share in common are (1) structured activities, (2) regular meetings, and (3) shared need. These seem so basic and simple that it is difficult to imagine they would make much difference to our health. But on closer inspection, it becomes more evident how these elements transform our isolated worlds.

Structure: Something that has form and definition
Spontaneity is admittedly exciting. We tend to feel more alive and more authentic when we are doing something we want to be doing when we want to be doing it. Structure has a way of dampening this excitement. Coming up against a limit, especially when it anchors to other people’s expectations, can feel oppressive.

Formal or structured groups supply limits of this kind—that is, the kind that can oppress us. So it makes sense that we might avoid these more institutionalized groupings in favor of more casual, spontaneous social events. Emergent gatherings do offer some of the satisfying elements of collective attunement that keep us interested in pursuing community. But more structured forms of engagement—with definitions for membership, terms of purpose, and acknowledged rules for participation—serve a key function in sustaining community life.

Perhaps our distrust of perfunctory, impersonal institutions constrains our ability to appreciate this structure. Hopefully our orientation to attunement (Recover) and discursive skills (Relearn) will help us improve the quality of structured groups to ensure they offer us the best of what reliable community engagement can bring (Rejoin).

Continuity: Something that goes on while other things disappear
We need continuity. While formal structure gives us something we can sink our teeth into, a regular diet is what creates the continuity. Whatever the context, relationships are more successful the more consistently we tend to them.

While flexibility is essential, too much of it can feel like transience. Continuity signals us that we are part of something that does not leave us behind. Membership supplies this kind of continuity. Times change. People come and go. We have learned we are supposed to accept this. But an environment where too many ties are dissolving is unacceptable—literally, neurobiologically, we do not tolerate the discontinuity. It is the source of trauma.

Our health improves when we are committed to a well-defined group that meets regularly—at least once or twice per month according to Putnam’s statistics (2000). Sustainable community is continuous despite fluid conditions.

Interdependency: Something that binds us together
The last element stands out in this discussion as perhaps the most important of all, though it depends on the other two to work. No doubt the experience we most attribute to feeling disengaged from groups is that sense that we do not need them. When membership in a structured group seems superfluous, we feel no urge to continue it. But when the group is doing something that meets an important need, a need we could not meet through private effort, we have the motivation to join.

Parent teacher associations illustrate this well. Studies show that students at schools with active PTAs score considerably higher on standardize test scores than students at other schools. Parents who know this get active in the local PTA. Whether or not they enjoy the specific activities at regular meetings, or would rather be doing something else, or are feeling pulled by other demands, parents show up at PTA meetings because they need to participate in shaping the quality of education for their children. They know they cannot have an influence without joining, attending meetings, and participating in decision-making.

Any group that brings people with a shared need together for cooperative action has higher enrollment, better attendance, and more longevity than groups whose purpose is desirable but not entirely necessary. When we depend on one another to address important needs, and when we have strategies for working cooperatively and attuning to each other’s intentions and feelings, we have a good recipe for community participation.

The Quest for Well-being
Hungry for connection, we want to make relationships work, even when it is daunting. Striving to maintain those connections, we can develop new skills and become more competent at the complex negotiations that collective action demands. But we will not develop those skills or recover that hunger without opportunities that help us to live and work in more interdependent ways.

The problem with interdependency is not that it makes us weak. On the contrary, dependence on a diverse range of solid supports may well be the definition of strength (think of a solid financial portfolio whose “health” derives from a diverse range of investments each with its own relationships to a unique set of market conditions). While it will take some adjustments to confront the myth of independence and work through the deep shame we have come to feel about needing help, the greater difficulty lies in the dread that we feel when we cannot read the very people with whom our well-being is entangled.

We leave communities not simply because we believe we should be able to go it alone, but because we have little confidence in the community’s capacity to handle our individual differences and unique interests and needs. Our shame about having needs of course complicates matters by making us to feel that our vulnerabilities are burdens to the community, masking that the bigger problem lies in our fear of being mishandled and dropped. We can see this dilemma intensify when we have ideas, feelings, values or embodied experiences that put us in conflict with the collective (e.g., those of us who do not identify as heterosexual). In that case, if we want our feelings and needs respected we must leave the village and either charter one of our own or build a fort somewhere far away from the people who do not understand us.

But we do this always together. If I leave, you let me go. If you misunderstand me, I give up on understanding you. If we hurt each other, we agree to avoid each other. Always in the ground of our social worlds is the capacity to coordinate action, even if what we are coordinating is avoidance and withdrawal.

Our isolation is orchestrated. I am tuning my instrument always to yours as we rehearse together our best attempts at sustaining ourselves. Sometimes we play the music of isolation. But our very success at keeping each other at bay has required this coordinated action, evidence that we can collaborate. It is our nature to work together. So it appears that we have the opportunity to use our natural ability to live in concert, respecting the rich variety of our expressions of human experience and realizing our potential for strength and health in community.

References

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