Practicing Care for Each Other is the Heart of Vibrant Communities
The best way to turn a group into a community is by making an explicit commitment to care for each other, no matter the original goals of the group. This commitment nurtures a sense of belonging, which is a fundamental human need. While this may be obvious, a commitment to care is not explicit in many, if not most, established groups or social gatherings.
A commitment to care is like a muscle; It is strengthened when we actively practice it in our thoughts, choices, and actions. The kind of care that transforms our communities and relationships is non-transactional – it is given for its own sake, with no desired outcome. With no expectation of reciprocation or reward, caring is mutually beneficial and bears lasting fruit.
Virtually anything can be an act of care if offered in the spirit of care. It shows up as a kind word, a gesture, the willingness to listen, an affirming touch, a plate of cookies, and the recognition of someone’s gifts. Among other things, it comes in the form of consideration, kindness, respect, effort, compassion, understanding, patience, sharing, and community. It is love.
Research has shown that when we show care in how we communicate with each other, we feel better. When health care providers explicitly show their patients that they care, they recover faster and have better mental health outcomes following an illness. Nurses who are able to take the time to be more caring towards their patients are happier at their jobs. Clearly, fostering an environment of care is the best medicine. In other fields, a body of research shows that nurturing work environments characterized by interest, support, and respect greatly benefits employees, employers, and clients alike.
Research has also shown that we help children when we show them that we care about caring. Children who show caring behaviors, like cooperation with others and sharing, exhibit other strengths in school as they get older. For example, children who are more helpful to other kids in first grade have higher reading skills a couple of years later. Caring is modeled at very young ages; children under two years old can mirror caring and altruistic behavior.
While researching for my upcoming book The Practice of Belonging, I spoke to poet and essayist Ross Gay. His recently released Inciting Joy speaks intimately of how small acts of care within a community are intimately bound to the experience of joy. Our conversation kept coming back to the idea of care as practice, as not only an idea or feeling, but an action.
Care is best practiced locally within our communities, and doing that builds our capacity to care beyond their boundaries. Care is a mindset in which we acknowledge to ourselves that what we have to offer right now is enough, if given freely and from the heart.
Ross offered me an example from his own life that helped his own understanding of caring evolve. In 2010, he heard about an initiative to start a community orchard project in Bloomington, Indiana, where he lives and teaches.
Amy Countryman, now his neighbor and dear friend, placed an ad in a local newspaper announcing a meeting for anyone interested in creating a community orchard. Ross heard about the meeting through a friend and went to the first gathering of about a hundred people, none of whom he knew at the time.
There was a spirit of collaboration in the very first meeting, where people spontaneously broke into teams to create something that was new for them. Ross recalled that there were people of all ages there, including elders who knew more about gardening, people “deep in the woods of the biology of plants,” and those who just knew how to dig a hole.
For Ross, what was so special about this project is how people came together with the common goals of learning and sharing. They worked hard to create a space where they could practice community. Strangers when the project began, they became like “deep beloveds,” a group of people who were there for each other, “caring each other through.”
A vibrant community can be nurtured when just a few people show up with the shared purpose and a commitment to care for each other. It might look like a meditation group, a potluck dinner, dancing, singing, or storytelling, environmental activism, a Dungeons and Dragons meetup, attending someone’s poetry reading or party, or driving someone to the airport. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations. What plants the seed for vibrant community in any gathering is the explicit commitment to put relationship first and to show up.
Think about things you do every day in your life that involve others: cooking a meal, cleaning up, or speaking to people. Try the following: before engaging in a daily activity, close your eyes and imagine bringing care to the action. Afterwards, notice if your experience is any different.
Try this out over a week and reflect on how infusing your day with conscious acts of care can change your day.
Thanks for reading The 3 Cs of Belonging: Care, Connection, and Community! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.