Reflections and intentions: Being in community

The sun is setting and reflecting on a lake. The water is frozen near the beach, which is in the foreground. The water in the middle of the lake is open water. There are rocks in the foreground, and hills with trees in the background.

It’s New Year’s Eve 2022, when we engage in the annual ritual of taking inventory of our accomplishments in this past year and making resolutions for the new year. Historically, these activities have felt like ‘shoulds’ of productivity and one upmanship: I should read dozens of books; I should hike lots of miles; I should learn a new skill. This is a troublesome thought exercise that emphasizes the individual and self-improvement, without recognizing the systems- and social-order-level barriers for people from historically excluded groups.

Most of my NYE experiences have been unnoteworthy and unmemorable and only two events stand out to me. I remember as a sixth grader trying to comprehend the senseless murder of a classmate’s father during a home burglary that December 31st. In another bizarre human experience, I remember staying out late on a warm evening in downtown Athens for NYE 1999, when we weren’t certain we would have access to our bank accounts in the morning because of the Y2K problem. Maybe New Year’s resolutions are ritualized attempts to give the illusion of control and order to our lives. 

I am entering into this new calendar year with more self-compassionate approaches to reflection and intention setting. What did I learn about myself for this year? What did I do for myself this year? What values do I continue to uphold and want to focus on for next year? 

My meaningful moments and accomplishments this year have something to do with important interdependent growth I experienced while in community. I released fear, allowed my own vulnerability, was courageous, extended myself for my own growth and experience, practiced love, and was loved. All of these experiences happened as part of being in, contributing to, and surrendering to the care of authentic, mutual, compassionate, and validating communities.  

I have been a participant, creator, and facilitator of many different gatherings.  I am great at facilitating peace-making in community circles. That’s an appropriate goal for communities I facilitate as part of work. However, I am also personally and professionally participating in communities where I am just outside the circle, not as a true, co-equal participant. I play the peace-maker role while I am in turmoil inside, where there is no inner peace in my mind or body. I don’t feel safe or even allowed to be emotionally or physically vulnerable, to share the reality of my experience, to have hurts seen and cared for, and to be authentic and transparent with what I care about. While the other people in the gathering might feel community, I generally feel like I don’t truly, authentically belong in those communities. I neither expect, ask, nor allow much of myself to be seen.

This year, I grew in my discernment about the communities to which I give substantial time and energy. This year, I accepted that communities where I feel like I’m on the outside looking in and where I withhold parts of myself just aren’t good fits for my values and goals. I also grew in my ability to ask, receive, and experience care in communities that share my values. Most significantly, I joined a Twelve-Step community this year, something I only remembered in today’s weekly group meeting. The format of group meetings, hearing the experiences of others, and sharing my own have made a huge difference for me in learning to live compassionately with complex PTSD. My participation in that group is helping me see my agency. I’m learning that I’m supposed to have my own interests, preferences, and opinions. I am learning that my needs aren’t extraordinary and that I deserve to have them met kindly. I am learning that I get to choose who I spend time with, what I give energy to, and how I communicate my needs and expectations. 

This year, I grew in my ability to prioritize my care and be in compassionate relationship with myself. I took a two-month mental health leave in the spring when I realized I was in perpetual panic mode. During that time, I learned what it feels like to actually relax and to enjoy time by myself. This summer, when each successive medical intervention worsened my toes and my mental health, I split with that community of health care providers. I found a new community of sports medicine providers where I feel seen as a full human being. They share my goals to reduce the pain in my toes, regain function, and resume an active lifestyle. Every interaction with them since has brought me inner peace and physical relief.

This year, I grew into more deliberate focus about my professional interests in the roles of communities for graduate student development. I also made that focus intentionally more public with presentations, publications, and blogs about those communities. In a future blog post, I’ll pull together some themes about the grad development communities I’ve focused on this year, including: Transgressive Learning Communities; Transforming your Research Into Teaching; PhD Career Versatility; Teaching as if Learning Matters; Higher Education Careers Beyond the Professoriate; and Holistic Grad Development.

I want to continue to find belonging, love, liberation, and joy in my chosen communities in 2023. I want to continue moving in the direction of personal and professional communities where I can be fully present and both be love and be loved. I want to continue prioritizing my participation in communities that give gratitude in little and big ways for being together in times of crisis and ease, sharing both the burdens and the prosperity. I want to continue moving in the direction of communities that feel authentic, conscientious, vulnerable, courageous, restorative, therapeutic, abolitionist, and anti-oppressive. 

As we enter a new calendar year, I encourage you to think about what community means to you, how you feel when you are in authentic community, and what magic happens when you are in community. 

I leave you with the opening lines of Priya Parker’s 2018 book, The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters.

“Why do we gather? We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to build companies and schools and neighborhoods. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye. 

But here is the great paradox of gathering: There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”

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