I am a true believer that we often find ourselves drawn to situations for a reason. In my case, I’m thinking about having gone back to work for the semester and a few of the lessons I’m re-learning. One of those has to do with the power of community. Ironically, when I retired three years ago, it was solitude and independence that I was seeking. I’d been surrounded by people for more than 30 years in my working life and I longed for the sense of more quiet time on my own schedule.
Don’t think for a minute that I’m not delighted to be retired—and the idea of unscheduled time alone is delicious. But I’ve been reminded in this month I’ve been back that no matter how strong or talented or successful we might be, we are so much more than that because of the communities we belong to. I see it with students who are in study groups or class cohorts, with faculty who are working on projects together, and with other deans when we talk openly and honestly about the stresses of our work.
In my own life, I owe most of the richness I enjoy to the community of souls who stand by me no matter what.
I didn’t grow up in a large family or even one that had a strong sense of cohesiveness. My parents were older than most kids’ moms and dads and my brothers were grown and out of the house when I was still young. It wasn’t until I was in college, first as a member of a women’s rights group on my campus, and later on the staff of the student newspaper, that I began to understand the value of what we can do together—for each other and for the world around us.
Now I am lucky to be part of several communities—in my family of friends, with my co-workers (whether I’m back at work or not), and with the lovely, brilliant people with whom I recently attended my MFA program. I count on all of them to know my story, to understand what I need in the world, to provide me with advice and support, and to tell me the truth when I need it. I hope they depend on me for the same things. The longer I am connected to these people, the stronger I feel about how silly and flat my life would seem without them.
I attended a student event last week that brought together a group of young scholars with the people who are helping them as they begin community college. Those support teams—including moms and grandfathers and younger sisters and teachers, among many others—provide a community to whom these students can turn when they’re struggling or celebrating. They are the people who help them be the best they can be and encourage them to strive for their goals. In my own life, I owe most of the richness I enjoy to the community of souls who stand by me no matter what.
When I face a challenge, my first instinct is often to keep it to myself, to push my way through it, to solve it on my own. The old story I hold on to from my past is that most people are more concerned about their own challenges than they are anyone else’s and that the needs of others come before our own. I forget in those times that I’m struggling that the give and take of a true supportive community means we really can depend on each other to be there whenever we need it. No one’s troubles are more important than anyone else’s.
Despite the fact that going back to work this semester has forced me to be more of an extrovert than I feel comfortable being, it has also reminded me of my communities. Just being able to brainstorm over a shared problem has helped me remember the potency of the groups of people who have our backs. It has reminded me that I am blessed with human resources beyond my wildest imagination. And, it has assured me that alone we are good and interesting people, but when we share our strengths and our trials, we are nearly superhuman.