Sanctuaries: Where We Learn to Belong
The 6 Essential Qualities of Vibrant Communities
The experience of belonging is essential for our physical health, emotional well-being, and the ability to do well in life. The importance of belonging is not fully appreciated, and as a result, we are in a crisis of connection with serious consequences, evidenced through rapidly accelerating rates of depression. A 2018 survey of 20,000 adults found that half of those who responded felt lonely and did not have meaningful social interactions on most days.
We move out of the plight of separateness only by learning healthier ways of relating to each other. But we need places to practice these skills – and those places are within our personal communities. Healthy communities require trusting relationships, and those are built only when we show up with commitment and presence.
Community is defined here as the experience of solidarity and belonging with others who share values, interests, and experiences. Vibrant community is distinguished as a group of people joined with the conscious understanding that, no matter the goals of the group, there is a commitment to prioritize relationships with the people involved.
A vibrant community can be created when just a few people come together for a shared purpose and commit to each other. It might look like reading and discussing a book, playing a game, dancing and singing, meditating or praying, telling stories, or engaging in environmental activism or a monthly potluck dinner. What plants the seed of vibrant community in any gathering is the commitment to put relationship first and to show up.
Over the course of two years, I traveled throughout the United States to research a book on community building. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I met with community members online. I had dozens of conversations which centered on discussing what fosters a sense of connection and belonging in these places. Six qualities stood out that distinguished certain communities from other groups and gatherings. We can extend these same qualities to our existing relationships to deepen the experience of belonging and connection, within our own vibrant communities.
It helps to think of these qualities as verbs rather than nouns because they are cultivated only by establishing practices around them, leading to a paradigmatic shift in how we perceive, think, make decisions, and act.
Quality #1: Commitment to Care
The first quality is an explicit commitment to care for each other, which is universal among all vibrant communities. This commitment nurtures the fundamental human need of belonging. This quality of community might seem obvious, but it is not explicit in most established groups and social gatherings; nor is it a given in our personal relationships.
Quality #2: Acceptance
The second quality of vibrant community is acceptance, valuing people for who they are, which is essential for fostering authenticity. When we are accepted, we don’t have to hide aspects of ourselves, including things that embarrass us or that we perceive as “broken”.
Quality #3: Diversity
The third quality is diversity, valuing it and recognizing that it strengthens the community. Although vibrant communities welcome diversity and aspire to greater inclusion, they can have difficulty making it a reality. A diverse community cannot happen without making it an explicit priority of the entire group. This is especially true in a well-established community, where it can be difficult to make the kinds of changes needed for greater inclusion.
Quality #4: Skillful Handling of Differences
The fourth quality of vibrant communities is that they practice skillful ways to handle their differences that allow them to move beyond tension or conflict to understanding. Sometimes communities need help, through outside facilitation, to help them structure dialogue in ways that build trust so that conversations around difficult topics can be explored.
Quality #5: Valuing Celebration
The fifth quality of these communities is that they place a high value on celebration and ritual. Alongside sharing the mundane details of day-to-day life, they intentionally create opportunities for meaningful bonding and having fun. Ceremony and ritual are meaningful because they take place within the context of caring relationships.
Quality #6: Hospitality
The sixth quality is the gift of hospitality, which is the ancient art of welcoming guests. This attribute runs counter to the premium that our consumerist culture places on exclusivity. Vibrant communities put effort into finding creative ways for people outside their membership to meaningfully participate in the experience of community.
It can’t be overly emphasized that these qualities just don’t happen spontaneously – they are generated by us through practice and, at times, very hard work. As with anything in life that matters the most, they are fostered through intention.
Vibrant communities are the most effective platform to cultivate healthy belonging. When we develop practices to welcome similar qualities in all our relationships, we transform how we relate to each other. The skills practiced in vibrant communities can serve as a roadmap to join collaboratively with others who are outside our daily circles of care, building bonds of understanding and enabling us to meet the substantial challenges we face from a place of connection and strength.
Think about one of your valued personal communities and reflect on the following questions:
What does it mean for me to prioritize relationships with members of my community?
What would it look like to practice acceptance, both towards myself and others?
What can I do to welcome greater diversity and practice being more inclusive?
How can I learn to handle tension more skillfully when it arises within my community – and how might I handle differences in creative ways?
Which rituals do I value, if any, and does my community take time to celebrate each other?
Does my community find ways to welcome guests to participate meaningfully?
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