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Community Revisited

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The theme of this week for me was community. I attended a workshop on narrative therapy in which community became the overriding theme. I've written before on why we need community and we don't we have it. Today I want to write about some communities that do exist and are working.

First, I met people in one of my workshops who came from a group of people who began in a cul-de-sac. At first, they pooled childcare resources. As they continued to help each other with childcare, they began to wonder if they could share more than just childcare. Eventually, they started pooling other resources, such as joint ownership of automobiles. This eventually led to their buying an entire apartment building with a central courtyard where families could gather and children could play. They converted the lobby of the apartment building into common area and built a common kitchen. Now people could choose to eat in their own apartment or to eat with the community in the common kitchen. Overtime, they built businesses together and incorporated to become their own village.

I have met others who have charted similar path. An ecological research group on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, created a similar environment by buying land at the end of a road and building dwellings upon that land. They created individually owned dwellings and commonly owned structures, including a library; community center for lectures, music, dance, and other entertainment; common kitchen; common exercise room; community garden; community greenhouse; and more. Similarly co-ops in New York City have converted to such communities. Why don't we do this more often?

I suspect the answer lies in the restriction in our freedom. When we join a community, extricating ourselves is more difficult financially and emotionally than when we are anonymous. If nobody knows me, I can leave as quietly as I came, a shadow in the night. The downside of this, of course, was presented in the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, staring Jimmy Stewart, who discovered that he belonged and had made a difference in many people's lives, so many, that when he had a need, the entire town came to his aid.

Community involves trading freedom for connectedness. The two must be balanced. Too much freedom of movement leads to isolation and disconnection. Too much connectedness eliminates freedom of movement. For some people, moving freely is unimportant. For those people who were born into a large family in a small community and have a place, despite their being unable to leave, they feel no restrictions or loss. For others, born into a large family in a small community, the stifling of their dreams is unbearable. Not all communities into which we are born support the dreams we have, support the fufillment of our passions. Doing art has historically forced people to move to large urban areas to find community. The minimum number of other artists in a small farming town is restrictive and uninspiring. Similarly, small communities cannot support symphony orchestras, large research institutes or Universities, etc. Some people do have to leave home to find their niche.

Nevertheless, the examples I gave (and I have more) support the idea that we can form communities by intent when we must leave the communities of our birth or when those communities no longer support us. We can seek out like minded people and form bonds by intent. What we have to accept, however, is the notion of accountability. When we form communities, we become accountable to the people in those communities. This is a good thing, though accountability necessarily restricts our freedom. It does, however, give us a sense of connectedness, for those others are also accountable to us. We need networks of accountability, which help us to fulfill our commitments to serve others, to take care of our own bodies, to emotionally regulate us.

My suggestion is that the rise in diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder that we are currently seeing in the United States, relates to our lack of connectedness and community, because we need others to emotionally regulate us. At a recent Behavioral Health meeting in Seattle, I heard Dan Siegel speak and later had dinner with him. We discussed our common idea that human beings are designed to be emotionally regulated by other people. Our brains are caught in social networks that regulate our affect. Without these bonds of social connectedness, we become dysregulated. We are not designed to self-regulate entirely.

Each of us is a neuron in a social brain. This social brain regulates us and keeps our mood stable. Our emotions arise in response to our interactions with each other. Stories serve as the neurotransmitters for this social brain. The stories teach us how to behave toward and with each other. They teach us how to perceive and interpret each other to regulate our moods and emotions.

My son understood this. Recently he was talking to a psychiatric colleague who was espousing the standard, "only you are responsible for how you feel" line. She went on to say, "I can't make you feel anything. Your feelings are all yours."

"No," he said. "My feelings arise in response to you and are not controllable. My behavior is controllable, but not my feelings. Feelings are part of an early warning system that alert us to danger. Without relationships, I wouldn't have most of my feelings."

He captured the ideas about emotions that most indigenous people share. Certainly I have heard it well articulated in Lakota circles. Feelings arise from social relationships and community is necessary for social relationships. Without community, we would have no feelings, for we would be alone.

At dinner, Dan Siegel spoke more about our colleaagues who refuse to believe that parents have anything to do with their children's mental health.f They believe mental health is entirely the result of genes. I don't have to relate to these colleagues as often as he does, but it's amazing in these days of epigenetics, that anyone could dismiss the social environment as a contributor to mood regulation.


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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)

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