Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Failures in Reaching Out, in Community

"The person you are avoiding may very well be the person God wants you to reach out to."  -Jeff Powell

It was the above quote that got me thinking today, though I'm not sure how completely I'll address it in this post.  For all my talk about community, I have to say that when it comes right down to it, I'm not so good at the nitty gritty of community.  Community is about sharing the joys and sorrows, the work and play, the laughter and tears.  It is about dealing with the wholeness of each other, the good and the bad, the complexities and contradictions.  It is about supporting each other, even when doing so isn't easy or convenient.  It's about reaching out and sticking around.

I can be pretty squeamish when people need me.  I am comfortable reaching out to someone when I make the choice to reach out to him or her, when I decide to grace him or her with my benevolent presence (please read the last phrase while rolling your eyes).  I'm not so good when someone approaches me needing help. I'm not always willing to extend a hand, even when I have one free and particularly if helping somehow messes with the plans I've made.  This is not something I am particularly proud of. 

I recently communicated with someone I met along my journey whom I feel like I failed in all sorts of ways.   Thankfully, she doesn't seem to think so, as she continues to say all sorts of, in my opinion, far-too-kind and glowing things about me.  For all my talk about sharing other people's burdens, I feel like in her case, I pretty much looked at her, saw the huge pack weighing her down, one I could have offered to carry, and said, "Hey, how about I carry your water bottle?"  Not too many people struggle under the weight of a water bottle.  Later I didn't even offer that.  This friend, I'll call her a friend since she was a friend to me, despite my poor efforts at reciprocating the friendship, was going through a rough time when I met her.  She felt like she didn't belong where she was, but at the time there was no way for her to get out of her situation.  For awhile I listened to her when she needed me to, but I had nothing, no sage advice or words of comfort, to offer her.  As time went on I found ways to avoid her so that I wouldn't be asked to carry part of her load.  She continued to be a good friend to me, despite my lack of reciprocation. Now she has moved on and is in a better place, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  We have communicated a few times.  Fair-weather friend.  I've always thought I was better than that, but in her case, I think the term fits me well.  

She is not the first person I have failed.  I could make a long list of people who I have hurt by making selfish choices, whose friendships I have let slip away for no good reason, whose cries for help I have pretended not to hear.  Certainly, I have done good in the world, but I tend to be better at the short-term commitments- day-long service projects, a semester class, 3 months in India, 2 months in Palestine.  And then I leave.

Since I have been home, I have tried to be a better friend, a better community member, a more committed person in general, though what that means for a person who is planning on leaving again, I'm not sure.  I've tried to repair fractured places in some relationships.  I'm trying to maintain friendships across oceans, both physical and cultural.  I'm trying to engage myself in community, in several, really.  I'm not sure if I'm succeeding.  But I'm trying.

Over the weekend I was with my high school girlfriends, women who know me well, who've known me through many of my most formative years (though I'm still ever-in-process of formation).  We don't see each other often, but the ties between us remain strong.  During our time together, we talked a lot and laughed a lot.  There were a few tears, but not many, even as we shared some of the heartbreak of our lives.  For that short time we had together, we were community, a community formed 20+ years ago, one that has survived some pretty rough patches, both from external and internal forces.  We've had many moments of succeeding and failing to reach out to each other.  We've stuck with each other, even if imperfectly.

I guess that's what it's all about really.  My friend from my travels has graced me with understanding and forgiveness (as have many other people).  I've failed her in the past, but maybe I'll do better the next time.  Recognizing my failure, maybe I won't avoid the next person who reaches out to me for help.  I am imperfect, but I am trying.  You can probably say the same.  It's the best we can do, right?  This is all we can ask in community.

I will close with one of my favorite descriptions of community from Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow.  I've posted it before, but it's worth a re-post, since maybe you didn't see it the first time:

"What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on... It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership... My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace."


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