When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored.
So what do we do in a circle of trust? […] We speak our own truth; we listen receptively to the truth of others; we ask each other honest, open questions instead of giving counsel; and we offer each other the healing and empowering gifts of silence and laughter.
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
Community is an ambivalent word. To me, the real kind, it means this will take time. And there will be tears. Just when I think I have found who I am, there is yet another layer to shed. I used to associate “community” as an excuse to socialize for extroverts. It was like forced groupwork where one person ends up doing most of the work. Lots of mindless small talk or endless Bible studies with prescriptive questions where right answers exist. I’ve seen ugly things where community can be destructive and hurt people. But I’ve been surprised, too.
At several points in my life, I realized that this gulf between my false self and authentic self could no longer coexist. Another layer to shed. I did not discover this by myself. The fragmentation I learned to face in myself began with key people who have spoken truth in my life who were patient enough for me to listen to my inner teacher. What an undivided life requires is terrifying at first. We are unraveling the ego. We are creating space for soulwork and extending to others the same invitation.
So many of my experiences with community groups in churches have conditioned me to hide and fix problems instead of laying them bare before people whom we trust to speak truth into our lives. The tribal part of me wants to surround myself with people who agree with me. I just want people to get me. Perhaps this is something that resonates with us all. But is that all there is to community? How do we begin to go deeper, and together?
One of the two basic beliefs of the Quaker circles Palmer integrates into his ideas about true community and what he refers to as “circles of trust” begins with learning how to listen to the soul. What the Quakers call the “inner teacher.” It is this spiritual self that speaks to us as we turn to it for guidance which is more reliable than any institution, ideology or doctrine. Or even the church. The second belief is learning how to listen in community to help discern our inner teacher’s voice.
My parents are deeply lonely people. And like most immigrant families they poured out their lives into first generation Korean churches to seek commonality and belonging. This is what community meant to them. They were so busy surviving, to put food on the table, to make meaning by moving. Because to them this was living. To listen to their “inner teachers” was not yet. Not enough time. When they found time to breathe. What they never quite mastered was how to listen in community. So they basically repeated what they only knew: community as survival. Community on the surface. Community as another place to save face. Yet they longed for its promises of closeness and belonging. As their child, one can sense these things.
They sought community in their own way. My mother joined a Korean Maranatha cult in the 90s that almost ended her marriage. To her, community was a way of escape from reality. It was a way to cope with all the difficulties that come with always being foreign, always labeled as the “other” in various ways. My father himself followed a subversive Quaker during his college days named Ham Seok-heon, a man who was imprisoned for publishing articles in passive resistance, speaking out radically against the Korean government’s alliance under Japanese colonialist regime. Like Palmer, Ham Seok-heon also spent some time at Pendle Hill(a Quaker school in Philly). When my parents started a family, I remember they also took us to visit Amish farms, again, as an attempt to seek community even as outsiders. I have memories of mystical prayers and prophecies. There was a moment I felt the power of presence for the first time. It’s when I internalized that community is a form of truth that showed people visions. And it left a heavy impression on me.
How does one endure the discomfort of an imperfect community(AKA all communities) and when hurt, their solution was to leave. So all my life, we wandered from church to church and never felt quite at home. And I wonder if it is because I do not know what it means to be in a true community. Have you heard of the porcupine’s dilemma? A metaphor ascribed to Arthur Schopenhauer from the 19th century, it’s this parable describing the situation of how porcupines naturally move closer together in order to share heat in the dead of winter. However, the tragedy is that as they come together their sharp spines poke at eachother that eventually keep them apart. Thus the dilemma– which is really a metaphor for the problem of human intimacy and community. We all long for belonging and connection but at the same time we don’t want to be uncomfortable!
One of the historic examples Palmer gives towards the end of his book is the life story of John Woolman. This is a Quaker during the 1700s who received a revelation from God that slavery must end. For twenty years he laboriously goes from town to town, meeting after meeting to speak his truth and the Quakers became the first religious community in this country to free their slaves. And this happens eighty years before the Civil War. They were key players in forming the Underground Railroad.
Woolman may be remembered in history for ending slavery among Quakers. One can only imagine the sweat and persistence he had to accomplish what he did in the world. This is a man who listened to his inner teacher both personally and in community. And he knew how to listen. He followed his inner teacher and he wrestled with discernment among communities of people who were willing to hold the tension of different voices until it broke into one voice. In this case, Woolman gets to see the fruit of his labor, though it took two decades. The wisdom he carried didn’t fall from the sky. Experience and discernment were his teachers. They were long days. He attempted to work at untying the knot of human loneliness and meaning by being in community, day after day, year after year.
How would our world be different if all the people in the world knew how to listen? What would it be like if everyone had a community to seek human meaning? Freeing slaves is a start.
Palmer then tells a short Hasidic tale that tells us how this could happen:
The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
During our current pandemic, I have found myself living at home for an unplanned extended amount of time. As I reflect, my family is my first experience of community. They taught me hurt. They taught me love. And everything in between. Like the porcupine dilemma, there is always a distance but an urgency to huddle together when the day grows cold and unbearable. According to Carl Jung, most of our lives we strive to bring to completion the life which our parents have not lived. And so the search for deeper community continues. And the practice of listening takes me back on the road to soulwork. My parents were immigrants who did not have the luxury of introspection and time. And now, suddenly, our world offers these two very gifts–and we are struck by its simplicity.
What is our deepest longing but to be seen and heard for who we really are? Our souls wait in anticipation, present all along, sitting just beneath the surface to come out and show its true strength. But it never comes uninvited. And it never comes easy. The way to the soul and the way to belong begins with true community.
When my heart feels closed, and I cannot hear my inner teacher, I turn to my community–even if my heart breaks, until the words fall in.