I’ve often noticed that my interactions with a community I join can be described in consistent stages. This past week, I learned that communities themselves usually develop in stages (M. Scott Peck describes these stages as pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and then true community.) I’m still processing this information, but what I love about frameworks like this is that they give me words and structures to understand my experiences.
A brief example
In college, I helped form a small community of artists in my introduction to art class that continued for several years. We wouldn’t call ourselves a community, but you could definitely call us a flexible, non-hater clique.
At first, my social schmooze–my extraversion–led the way, allowing me to develop relationships quickly and bring people together. Of course, as in any new relationships, we focused on our similarities rather than our differences.
After we grew comfortable with each other, my (and others’) individual differences started to come out. It isn’t an intentional decision when this happens, but rather a natural consequence of growing in familiarity and trust–and in the desire to be one’s true self in this new community.
Some of our differences we celebrated. My laugh is loud, distinctive, and could be obnoxious–but they chose to enjoy it, and every time I laughed in class, they would all bust out laughing. Other friends had peculiar quirks which we even chose to adopt as a group as a part of our deepening relationship.
But some of our differences grated on us. There were many of these for me–the dorkyness of my interests and my stories, my terrible memory and propensity for re-telling stories, my Christian faith in conflict with the values of many art students, and much more. It’s in this stage where I felt so different–so weird–that I separated myself from the community, pitied myself for being an outsider, and stepped away.
Hindsight and chaos
In hindsight and armed with my new knowledge of the stages of community development, I can see this community experience (and many like it) fell apart at the chaos stage. We started at pseudocommunity, where we minimize our differences, and did just fine. But at chaos, where we allow our own individual differences to emerge, pieces (or in other cases, the whole) of the community fell apart.
Having the framework to think about this allows me to look at that experience and understand it better. I can understand why I felt so uncomfortable: I allowed my individuality to show through and felt unwanted, judged, and abandoned. But I can also see where I acted wrongly: It’s true that I felt that way, but I can’t say entirely how much of those feelings were actually based in fact. I know they’re not entirely made up, but I can’t help but think that if I had stuck around and fought through it just a little bit longer, I would’ve had a different experience in that community.
How do we apply this to our lives today?
One community I’m digging deeply into right now is the Urbana 12 Musical Worship Team. We meet together for practices, gigs (smaller conferences), and Bible study and musical development. We’ve gone from a group of people with a mixture of connections and varied closeness to a group of people walking through these stages of community together. Add to the normal community dynamics the facts that we’re all musicians, all leaders, most of different ethnicities from each other, and only see each other every month or two, and you get a community that will have a huge amount of ammo for chaos.
We are currently walking through chaos together. We’ve had some group-wide chaos that we’ve worked together as a team, but I’ve also hit my own personal space of chaos, just like I have in the past.
Like in each previous community, I’ve felt myself exceedingly aware of my peculiarities. My stories are never really that good when they come out of my mouth (but I swear they were in my head!) My laugh and a lot of my exclamations are loud and feel obnoxious. My memory leaves me telling the same stories over and over, or focusing on the same details of something over and over, but then forgetting important details of my friends’ lives. And on and on.
This past week I felt the tug to self-pity and separation again, but three things kept me from indulging it.
First, I thought about how these friends perceived me. Have they ever indicated that they’re annoyed, bored, offended, or generally tired of me? If I want to read my own self-importance into everything, sure–maybe when that friend didn’t respond the way I wanted he was really tired of me, not just exhausted from a long day. But if I take a realistic look at it, no, they’ve never indicated anything but respect and love for me.
Second, I thought about what I’ve learned about community, and let that guide my thoughts. I’m in chaos. I’m allowing my individual peculiarities to show through, and that means my insecurities about those peculiarities are showing through, too.
Third, and as yet unmentioned, I now have the strength of two relationships to show me that I am, indeed lovable. A LORD who knows my innermost depravity and loved me first (how do you even approach that?) and a wife who deals with every one of my most annoying of annoyances and yet chooses to accept, care for, and love me.
So, I chose to stick with it. I didn’t separate myself from my community. I didn’t wallow in self-pity. And I didn’t force myself to change. There will be times where some of my peculiarities can be subdued out of love for my community, but I can’t preemptively silence myself out of fear of people’s inner monologues. There will be times where people will be annoyed by or frustrated with me, but I can’t allow my people pleasing nature to be so terrified of that fact as to keep me from ever having real friends.
And it feels good.
The next stage after chaos is emptiness, which involves sharing your brokenness. I think that’s really the stage I failed at; moving from the chaos into a space of openness and vulnerability.
LORD, please teach me to empty myself so that every community you place me in can reach the stage of true community. Please continue to use my marriage and relationship with you to give me the confidence and strength to be open, vulnerable, and able to empty myself in love and service of others.