Creating Community

August — time to connect with friends and family!

animal volley ball color sig - Creating Community

This summer I took some time off and went on retreat to a Sufi center in New Mexico. I’ve been doing this on and off for over 30 years, but two years had slipped by since I last went. It felt good to renew friendships. Sadly, I learned that several friends had passed away in the interim.

When I got back to the Bay Area, I started scheduling dates with my local friends. The recent losses had made me keenly aware of how unpredictable life is and the importance of these connections.

At a biological level, human survival depends on social connection — families to grow up in and communities that protect and support. Mother Nature has wired in “bonding mechanisms” to insure we stay connected. Oxytocin is one of these mechanisms. When a human being connects with others, helps them, hugs them, shows affection, Oxytocin is released. It is a feel-good chemical that gives the organism a sense of well-being, safety and contentment. When it’s not there, we feel awful.

In this modern world with it’s smart phones, on-line services and instant gratification, it’s possible to get by on very minimal bonding — one partner, maybe a few distant family relationships. There’s no need for a hunting party to buy a box of cereal or neighbors to bring in the harvest or build a barn. We can get most of what we need on our own.

The shortcomings of this arrangement however, are horribly apparent when disaster strikes — when someone get’s seriously sick or dies. Then we discover that we have few people to turn to for help.

Caregiving is not a solo sport. It takes a team. Trying to do it alone can lead to overwhelm, resentment, burnout and even sickness and death. Thirty percent of caregivers predecease those they care for. Having friends who are willing to help is essential to successful caregiving.

The loss of a loved-one severs a social bond. It stimulates fear and stress as well as an Oxytocin deficit. When there is no one else to turn to for social connection it can lead to isolation and/or ill-advised efforts to bond — too soon and often with the wrong people.

It is wise to work on your social networks before disaster strikes. Think of it as an insurance policy. It will also make your life much better right now.

Here are some important concepts to consider as you build your social safety net:

Proximity. Location. Location. Location. People nearby can respond more rapidly than someone across the country or even across town. Exchanging favors is much easier when you don’t have to go far. And neighbors seem more willing to help when asked perhaps because they may need you sometime.

While hospice volunteering, I met a dying woman whose care was provided by her neighbors — with the help of hospice. She had no family and no money. Her neighbors were enough.

Repetition. Repetition grows the relationship.

My husband and I used to visit our friend Marianne nearly every Sunday after our yoga class. We were already over in Marin, so it was easy to do and quickly became a routine. Over lunch we shared thoughts and feelings and the friendship deepened. This made it easier for her to ask for help when her cancer returned.

Reciprocity. It is important to keep things in balance. If you have been doing most of the giving, you must also learn to receive in return, otherwise resentments may arise.

Asking for help and receiving it can be very difficult in a culture that values independence and self-reliance. People are afraid to be needy or beholden. Yet accepting help from someone actually deepens the relationship. It acknowledges our importance.

I had a client who was very generous with her friends while her husband was alive. They held many parties and organized and paid for an annual excursion to a jazz event. After her husband died, she was no longer able to do these things. Instead of taking on these community activities, her friend complained and then withdrew from her. Unfortunately, she had never established a pattern of reciprocity which would have weeded out the takers from more supportive friends.

Upgrading. Repetition and reciprocity alone will not take a relationship to a deeper level. Some action that redefines the relationship may be required.

When George and I were planning our wedding, a friend accidentally mentioned it to my dance group. I had only known these women for several month and had not intended to invite them. I saw them as acquaintances not friends. But they were so enthusiastic, so willing to get on board and pitch in, that I opened to the idea. Their coming to my wedding and meeting my family and personal community redefined our relationship. Our relationship upgraded from acquaintances to friends.

Intimacy and Trust. Caregiving, death and grief are very private experiences that require both intimacy and trust. Like upgrading, some significant action must happen that takes relationship to a deeper level.

Shortly before Marianne found out her cancer had returned, she traveled with us (my husband George and I) and our mutual friend Sikha to the wedding of another friend in Grass Valley, CA. It involved a 3-hour drive and an overnight.

The wedding was particularly hard for Marianne because she was single now, having broken up with her long-term boyfriend. Also she had recently navigated the treatment of an operable cancer pretty much on her own. She seemed tired and fragile.

After the wedding, we decided to spend an extra night at Sierra Hot Springs. Through the hours of traveling together, sharing meals and hot tub bathing, a group closeness evolved.

While preparing for sleep in our one-room cabin, George noticed Marianne huddled in bed and very quiet. Guided by intuition, he got into her bed and held her in his arms. She broke into tears, great heaving sobs. He held her close until she was finished. Wiping away the tears, she thanked him for the hug. He said, “You looked like you could use a little contact, I hope that was alright.” .

Later she asked me if I was ok with what George did. I said, “Of course. I totally trust him.” After that we became her primary support until she died. I believe that George’s action was a turning point. A boundary was crossed and a deep intimacy and trust blossomed.

Creating and nurturing relationships takes effort. It is all too easy to get comfortable with the status quo — to be super busy and then collapse in front of the TV or computer. The rewards of connection, however, are well worth it both for the present and in preparing for the future. We really do need each other to survive.

So what are you waiting for? Who do you need to call?

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