Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Treating Social Arteriosclerosis

People mainly come to community seeking relationship and connection. What happens when those hopes and aspirations fall short?

I recently witnessed a set of meetings where veteran community members painfully unpacked some of this. Sandy & Chris talked about feeling hurt when Dale chose to continue playing music on the porch instead of coming to the dinner circle on time—that disrespected the hours that the cook had devoted to preparing a group meal. Dale spoke about how hard it was as a new member hearing Sandy and others laughing and having a good time in Sandy's room while Dale was left out. Chris had a story about feeling excluded when Dale and friends were packed onto a couch giggling and there was no room for one more.

The poignancy of these stories is that it's relatively easy to put yourself into either position in all them: times when we've been among the subgroup connecting and having fun; times when we've been the person on the outside looking in; times when we've been irritated by others opting out of a connecting ritual; times when we were the one who opted out because something else felt more pressing or more pleasing.
Thus, it's not hard to see how these incidents could have happened without anyone meaning to have slighted anyone—yet all of them had that result.

Where is the intersection between individual flexibility and observance of the group connection? While no one would try to argue that there should be no individual discretion (you must show up for every dinner circle and connect lovingly with your fellow members at 6:02 pm every day), neither would anyone advocate for total individual discretion when it comes to observing group norms (hey, if you don't feel like cooking when it's your turn, just blow it off). The challenge is finding the sweet spot where connections are robust yet no one feels trapped in a straight jacket.

Even though we readily agree on the desire for connection with one another and the need to nurture relationships as a priority, we don't all prefer to do that in the same ways, or at the same times. I'm a person who enjoys connecting through work or skill sharing (where I'm learning or passing along knowledge). Others are more comfortable hanging out, going on a walk, or lingering after a meal.
Nobody's wrong, yet things won't necessarily flow well without someone stretching beyond their comfort zone.

In addition to collaborating with others, I enjoy eating together with friends and connecting over food and drink, but there are limits. Up to 12 can work well for me, beyond that it's too chaotic and I tend to shy away. And it's even more nuanced than that. To feel comfortable connecting at a meal, I need to have a sense that what I have to say will be interesting to those present. While I'm willing to do a certain amount of testing the water, if initial forays don't land well I'll often stay quiet.

It's humbling for people to discuss hurts like this, to admit that there's blockage in the informal group flow and a need to attend to social arteriosclerosis before the heart stops. Meetings to discuss the phenomenon can help in that it's a chance to clear the air (social angioplasty), to affirm good will, and to discuss ways to alter how people reach out to one another (
dietary adjustments).

In the meeting I described at the outset of this blog, the session ended with Sandy, Dale, and Chris all making dates with one another to work through their hurts. They were brave enough to admit that they needed help and were willing to do the work to remove the plaque that had built up in their arteries, restricting the flow to the hearts.

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