Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times

Paul Born

216 pages, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014

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Nowadays, many people feel alone in the midst of the crowd—linked through a series of shallow relationships. The reality is that community has changed a lot. So often our social innovations take for granted that community exists already, and that it can provide a foundation for the change we desire. To build communities that are healthy, safe, and resilient, and for economic development, or even to achieve collective impact within our communities, we need to feel rooted. Tamarack Institute founder Paul Born wrote Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times to show us how this is possible. Visit his website for more information.

Below is an excerpt from Deepening Community.

A THEME OF THIS BOOK is that because of the complexity of our times, community is not so much chosen for us as by us. It is not a Pollyanna choice. It is a choice made in the midst of very real struggles in our own life and in our world. As chaos is visited upon us because of our environmental and economic choices, we will be called on to make many difficult decisions. These decisions will indicate our allegiances. Will we pull our borders in and be satisfied with shallow community? Will we turn against others in fear-based community? Or will we move toward others to create joy-based deep community?

As we have seen, the latter choice is a process; it is one that is worth reviewing here as we come to the close of this book.

Sharing Our Story

The journey begins as we share our stories, be they stories of fears or of joy. Sharing helps us to open up, to become vulnerable, to hear other people’s stories. Thus do we begin to work together to distinguish truth from untruth and rational fear from irrational fear, to determine what we might do together. When we really hear one another, the bond of community is forged between us. We smile at each other; we feel warmth and joy as if we are home. In these times, we must make it a priority to take time for community. We need one another now, and we will need one another even more as times become more difficult.

Enjoying One Another

As we continue to share our stories, and do so with the same players over time, reciprocity and trust grow between us. This is an investment in deepening community, and the dividends this investment pays will be crucial to us in times of need. When we enjoy one another in a community we have invested in, we become a collective witness to the events around us. We can celebrate our achievements and those of our children together. How sweet are the victories and even failures that are experienced in community!

Taking Care of One Another

Reciprocity and trust have a wonderful effect: reaching out to help one another becomes as natural as breathing. We take care of one another not only because it is the right thing to do, and not only because people will help us if we help them, but primarily because the bond of love that has grown between us moves us to do so. Mutual acts of caring that happen often forge a sense of belonging. When we feel we belong, we feel safe and fulfilled, and when we feel safe and fulfilled, we can dare to develop hope and common purpose. We have the strength to overcome, together, almost any challenge that comes our way.

Building a Better World Together

The above three acts of community—sharing our stories, enjoying one another, and taking care of one another—give us energy for the fourth act of deepening community: building a better world together. In fact, we become a force for change that is unstoppable. The work of restoring our communities feels light and possible. We no longer feel alone in our fear or hopeless in our dreams; rather, we have the courage to see our dreams become real.

Dreams and Reality

As we know from the life of Martin Luther King Jr., dreams of substance have a way of becoming real. King had a dream, and his dream, of justice between the races, has come true—not fully, not without many backward steps, not without so much more ground to take, because nothing in life is perfect, but true nonetheless.

A memory from my Mennonite youth—I hope that you will allow me one more—bears on this topic of dreams, or daydreams, in my case.

I performed a task every day from the age of six to eighteen, one with an unintended consequence (unintended by my parents, who gave me the task): learning to dream. For two or more hours a day, I collected eggs from the nearly twelve thousand chickens on our farm—I was assigned to gather 350 dozen eggs—walking down aisles of cages behind an egg wagon that was six feet long and about three feet high, as it lumbered along on its large balloon-like tires.

As I threw my arms back and forth with the rhythm of a fly fisherman, picking up three eggs in each hand and laying them into cartons, my mind could be otherwise occupied. I learned to daydream in extreme detail. Not only did I come up with big, bold ideas, but also I used the time to break them into the micro details and processes that would see them come to reality (if only in my mind).

I grew up wanting to make a difference in the world, so this skill of mentally turning dreams into reality has proven to be useful. I have been extremely lucky both in my dreaming and in finding so many colleagues and friends (my deep community) with whom to dream the same dreams together. Over a period of thirty years, the art of dreaming in detail has allowed us to start and/or build a dozen organizations, raise an estimated $100 million for charitable causes, and help more than a quarter million people live a better life.

In my work as director of Tamarack Institute, I have been privileged to lead people nationwide in community initiatives to reduce poverty and increase the riches of intentional neighborliness.

For me, large-scale initiatives to bring together the poor, existing community organizations, the efforts of governments at all levels, and private and public businesses begin with dreams. Dreaming is my way of considering every possible angle and all the scenarios of a situation well before it becomes a reality. For me, a dream is much more than a wish; it is a full-color, multidimensional window into the future.

For example, more than twenty years ago, I was privileged to lead an organization that provided reconciliation experiences through job training for young people living amid “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Several times a year, twenty young people—ten Catholic and ten Protestant—arrived in Cambridge, Ontario, and were billeted for three months in the homes of people, many of who had come from Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

The program was based on the need to break the cycle of fear and hatred between Protestants and Catholics and, in turn, stop the violence. Many of the Catholic young people with whom we were working had never had a Protestant friend and had never been in the home of a Protestant, and vice versa. Our work was to challenge the stereotypes and, over a three-month period, build a new story in the hearts and minds of these young people.

Many of them were from lower-income communities and, given the state of the economy in their country, had found it difficult to find jobs. They were vulnerable to the violence in their communities, for the prospect of a bleak future, economically, made them fertile ground for terrorist recruiters.

We saw job training as a way to recruit them into the reconciliation-training program we were offering. Once these young people lived, worked, and partied together away from the norms and patterns of their native neighborhoods, we were able—they were able—to change their attitudes and beliefs forever.

We learned that fear and hate, when challenged appropriately, can be changed, particularly when there is hope for a better future. The program was part of a much larger peace effort that has since stopped the killing in Northern Ireland.

It is because of dreams—not just mine, but those of many fellow workers in this great task of deepening community—that many thousands of people have seen their poverty reduced and have more work, better housing, healthier and safer families, and affordable transportation. It is because of dreams that thousands of children are happier in better day care, have more friends, and receive books on their birthdays and presents at Christmas.

It is because of dreams that people with developmental disabilities have more community and meaning in their lives. And it is because of dreams that whole communities have learned to change their circumstances, reduce poverty and crime, and improve their neighborhoods and conditions for generations to come.

The needs of our families, neighborhoods, and countries are still great—and, in these chaotic times, will become all the more so. But we know what we must do as a community. We must keep dreaming and sharing our dreams and hopes with one another. And we must keep making these dreams come true by acting on them as a community but never against another community. Acting in this way will be challenging but will be done with a lightness of being if we look out for and include one another. It is in the work of restoring our neighborhoods, cities, and beyond that we will see the result of dreams that are dreamed in deep community.

And what is deep community? It is the process of finding joy—much joy!—together.

Excerpted with permission from Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times © 2014 Berrett-Koehler Publishers