Magnifying Glasses and Ships

Submitted by Derek Alton on April 30, 2014 - 8:22am
A presentation for the Grand River Unitarian Church

Growing up I never understood the idea of a moving company.  How could a few people move a whole house full of stuff and why on earth would you pay money to someone you didn’t know to move it all. 

I grew up in a close-knit Mennonite community in the small town of Stouffville north of Toronto.  In our community when someone was going to move the church community would come to help.  It was common for 30 people to come help move.  One group would helping with packing, another group would be in charge of food, another group would be watching the kids, another group was supervising and waiting for their turn to jump in, and there was the group that actually did the moving.  It was a true example of many hands makes light work.

That's what moving meant to me.  It wasn’t until I moved off to university that I learned moving companies and, to be honest, it still doesn’t make sense to me.

That’s the power of community.

I'm Derek and I work for The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, a not-for-profit organization that explores how to tackle complex social problems.  Specifically I am providing leadership for a national study on how to deepen and strengthen community.  Over the last year and a half we have learned so much from people across the country and beyond.  Today I want explore one of the patterns that has emerged fom our work and what I think this could mean for the present and future of the church.

The pattern I want to look at is community as a magnifying glass on our potential.

Community serves as a magnifying glass because it takes whatever we are as an individual and amplifies it.  So if you take an individual who is strong, put them in a community and they become significantly stronger. If a person is scared you can put them into a community and group hysteria can occur.

There is a reason we come together to celebrate a birthday or a wedding.  It is because that event is more powerful when experienced as a group.  Another example is singing together.  Think about what it would feel like singing these hymns alone; now imagine how it felt this morning singing together.  That's the difference.  My dad calls this the group soul.  It is the idea that when we come together and are present in the moment together (i.e., no cell phones) something special happens.

There is a spiritual element to it.

We cease to be an individual and a collective consciousness forms.  It is awesome to see and even better to experience.

This not only occurs with joyous things but also with challenges.  When we face tragedy or crisis we also instinctively reach out for each other to help hold us up.  There is comfort in sharing our burden with others.  I think it goes further then that.  I believe that there are challenges we face in our lives that are beyond what we can handle on our own.  That if we don’t reach out there can be real and significant consequences to our health and well-being.  But once we place ourselves in a supporting community the challenge becomes manageable.  The weight feels less heavy.

We know groups are far more resilient then individuals.  This is true of the natural world as well.  A forest of trees is more likely to survive a strong windstorm then a single tree standing alone in a field.  It’s the same with human beings.

Paul Born, co-founder and president of Tamarack, recently came out with a book entitled Deepening Community.  In it he shares a story from the Mennonite Relief Sale in New Hamburg.  One morning he went early to help volunteer.  He came across a group of youth unloading a semi trailer full of over ten thousand pies.  About 50 of these youth formed a line from the trailer to pie table and they were handing them to each other one at a time.

Not only was this group of youth able to unload the trailer faster then any individual but, more importantly, what could have been work became joyful play as the group shared in the task together.

That is the power of community.

Sometimes I find it helpful to look at community as a tool.  I know that sounds strange but bear with me for a second.

If we see community as a tool then it is neither a positive or negative thing.  The positive and negative is in how the tool is used. 

Because of the great power of its magnification of our potential, many of the great accomplishments that we can see over the course of human history can be connected to community, whether it is the civil rights movement or putting a man on the moon.   There were many examples of things that were more then they could do by themselves.

But community has also been a tool for many of history's worst atrocities, just look at the genocide in Rwanda. 

This is important to remember; the communities that we form for support and to create and celebrate can also ostracize and harm.  This can happen even if we do not intend for it to happen.

A tool is only as constructive as the people who wield it.

Recently I have been wrestling with another theme that is emerging.  That is the challenge of depth vs. breadth in relationships.

We are the most interconnected society that has ever existed and yet as many reports state that there is a growing feeling of isolation and loneliness.  A part of this dynamic comes down to the difference between depth and breadth of relationships within our communities.

To have great breadth of relationships is to have a large network of friends.  One can have 600+ facebook friends, most of which one only interacts with peripherally. 

Another example is being part of many different clubs, groups and associations, something that our current society encourages.  There is huge pressure on people my age to be involved in many different things to increase our job prospects.

Stop and think for a second about how many hats you wear.

  • Family
  • Neighbourhood
  • Work
  • School
  • Sports Teams
  • Yoga Groups
  • Choirs
  • Different Groups of Friends

Our energies are dispersed.

In contrast, to have great depth of relationships is tied to a combination of intimacy and regular interactions.  Developing deep relationships requires time.  These are people who you are invested in and care deeply about.  Because of this it is hard to have more then a couple of deep relationships within your life at any one time.

To put it bluntly, current research says that the majority of you are networked into as many as a dozen different groups and associations and yet you crave a depth of connection that you are currently not getting.

Honestly I am no different.  I work a 50+ hour a week job, I am in grad school, I am involved in my local neighbourhood group, I am part of new intentional community that is developing in Guelph, I have siblings who are entering major transition points in their lives who I want to be able to support, I am trying to keep close ties to my family, I have different social circles I try to keep connected with and I am part of a few rec sports teams.

Under our current society this is a recipe for success, I am a poster child for what our society should look like. 

But I also crave that depth of relationship in my life.

The reality though is if we want this deeper connection we are going to have to let go of some of our hats to create the space for depth.

What hats will you let go of?

One of the conversations I was involved with was with a group of university students at the University of Guelph.  I was talking about all the challenges I saw with these broad shallow communities and how they got in the way of having deep connection. 

They pushed back:

But Derek you are looking at these deep communities with rose coloured glasses.  Don’t you see that our parents and grandparents communities though yes deep were narrow, they lacked diversity.  They also lacked impact.  

Don’t you see the potential of what we have now.  We can now engage with a greater diversity of experiences, ideas and people then ever before.  We can be pushed to continually grow and expand our understandings of others and ourselves.  We can truly see the universal humanity.  And because we are connected with all these groups our ability to create change, to make a better world is increased.  Our scope is broadened.  We can truly change the world.

So I was surprised, this model that I had so finely crafted in my mind and they were challenging it but I think they are right. 

So where does this leave us?

Well let me take a stab at tieing all this together.

Community makes us more then we are on our own.  It is a tool that magnifies our potential, makes us stronger and more resilient.  Positive emotions are increased and negative emotions are shared.

But it can also be destructive and so we need to be careful and constantly vigilant.

Currently the norm in our society is to have many different groups that we are connected with (many hats).  The advantage of this is that we are introduced to a great diversity of ideas and perspectives that broaden our own view.  This large network also creates great opportunity to influence change.

However, there is often a lack of depth and focus.  Our energy is dispersed which hinders our ability to create a solid impact.

This is where having a community to go deep in is important.  It grounds us, supports us, focuses us.  It provides a safe space to be truly known scars and all.

So to truly harness the power of community we must have both a deep community that grounds us and focuses us while also having a large network to keep stretching us and allow us to create large scale change.

There is an analogy that I learned in my current program that I think helps describe this.  The program director Francis Westley talks about the ship and the harbor.

We are the ship.  The harbor is our deep community.  We can stay in the harbor and be safe but our world will remain small and our impact will only be on our own harbor.  But if we venture out into the great sea we will discover other towns, even other countries.  We will be introduced to new foods, sights, sounds and smells.  We will meet lots of other interesting ships and build a network.  We can share our wares from home with all these places and ships, thus spreading out influence.  But our home harbor is where we can come back to, to refuel, make repairs and wait out storms.  We will bring back with us all the new wares from afar.

So the question is where is the home harbor in your life?

This is where I think the church is uniquely placed.  In my line of work we would call it a backbone organization. 

 A backbone organization:

  • Guides vision and strategy
  • Supports aligned activities (i.e., working together of members)
  • Establishes shared measures of success (how do we know how we are doing good?)
  • Builds public will
  • Advances policy
  • Mobilizes funding

This means that it is an organization that brings together a great diversity of groups, supports them, gives them a common vision and a safe space to experiment and learn.  Simply put they make all their members better by focusing and bringing them together to make a better world.  But for them to function properly the members have to be wholly invested in them.

Backbone organizations are essential in any social change movement.

They are an outward facing organization.

I think one of the most important things I have learned working with backbone organizations is that they are messy.  They are not a place you go for answers but rather a place you go to experiment and learn.  But one thing I can say is that they are one of the most powerful forces for social change.  The reason why.  They understand the balance between deep and broad communities.

I believe this is the calling of the church. 

I want to end with a personal story that for me encapsulates the true power of community.

You can read this personal story by clicking on the link: Community At Its Best


Thanks for your sharing,

Thanks for your sharing, Derek.

You've covered a lot of ground here.  The comments around breath and depth connect with quantity vs. quality (which connects with the "Why Am I Here" post submitted by 1000 Conversations).

As I read I wonder about whether communities can be primed as a constuructive force.  What are the conditions that breed a community that doesn't require a moving company? 

Submitted by 1000 Conversations