There has been a theme running through our lives for the past year or so. We are noticing it everywhere. We see it in several of our neighbors. We hear it in lots of our conversations with other cross-cultural workers (CCWs). We see it in immigrants and natural-born locals. It isn’t picky… it is prevalent in all socio-economic groups, all ages, and all races. So much so that Billy started doing research on it for his dissertation.
It’s a growing sense of loneliness and the need for connection and community.
It’s the reason that my neighbor stands on her front stoop every day and talks to whoever walks by. She lives alone. She’s in her late 80s. Standing outside every day to talk to the folks walking to the bakery is what is keeping her sane and alive. Because if she stays inside her cozy little living room sitting in her chair and watching TV, she will quickly lapse in to a deep loneliness that eats away at life. So instead, she holds court on her front step every day, waving and greeting the neighbors and having 5 and 10 minute chats with everyone who passes. She’s a doll!
Paco walks his little Yorkie dog by our house every day. I’m convinced that the little dog is finished with his business long before Paco is finished with the walk. Actually, the walk isn’t very “walk-ish”… it’s more about standing in the park and waiting for someone to come along so Paco can talk. And that someone is me on many days. I take our dogs out and while the dogs all run around and check out every smell and every pinecone and every tree in the park, Paco tells me anything and everything. His wife died a couple of years ago. He’s alone now, just him and his little dog. He tries to wow me with his ability to say greetings or phrases in several European languages. He gives me the town history, or gossips about folks that walk by, because “I’m a foreigner and I need to know these things”. Really nice man.
Billy and I attended a conference on Trauma and Resilience for care workers in early April. The research is quite compelling. The number one factor in resilience is Community – feeling connected to others, having people who you can share with and talk to, people who are there for us, who are available, who laugh with us and who cry with us. People who have connectedness and community are people who have the highest ‘survival rate’ when the tough stuff happens. Hmmm…
Then I went to a workshop on Team Development, specifically teams of cross-cultural workers. Guess what the number one factor was for team cohesion and success. A sense of belonging and community. Hmmm…
The thing that makes me sad is that the research also shows that the biggest factor that is missing for CCWs (and immigrants and refugees and anyone who is living in another culture or in transition) is a sense of belonging, community and security.
Think about it. When you move, you immediately lose those things. There is a sense of feeling a little lost, you don’t know where you fit, your normal routine is no longer there, your friend group (and family) is
now far away. Your sense of identity might take a pretty big hit due to these losses.
Speaking from experience, I would have to agree. With every move we have made, we have had a sense of loss, a sense of no longer belonging, a sense of feeling insecure in where we are or who we are. Our friends from home are now thousands of miles away. Our families are also far away. Who do you call when you need a hand? Who do you call when you want to celebrate something or when you have had a bad day and you need to vent? Who just shows up at your house for an impromptu cookout on Friday night? That used to happen EVERY Friday night in Texas. But when you move to another country?
The key is community. We are so lucky! We have never been completely without community. Sure, we moved far away. But we have always had our foot in several types of communities, no matter where we are. And, that automatically makes us more likely to be resilient, to be able to bounce back and survive the tough stuff, and to thrive wherever we are.
“Everybody has a home team: It’s the people you call when you get a flat tire or when something terrible happens. It’s the people who, near or far, know everything that’s wrong with you and love you anyways. These are the ones who tell you their secrets, who get themselves a glass of water without asking when they’re at your house. These are the people who cry when you cry. These are your people, your middle-of-the-night, no-matter-what people.” ― Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way
I’m going to make a little observation on that quote. Not everybody has a home team – because everybody doesn’t work to cultivate that connection - but I think everybody NEEDS one. We have these people! Yes, most of them are 5000 miles away, but they are there! They are always there. We also have a community of friends and peers who are CCWs. People who we can always call or text and say, “Hey, I need to talk. Do you have some time?” Yes, most of them live in other countries all around the globe, but they are community for us. They are a place where we know that we belong and we feel loved. They are the people who ‘get it’.
I was talking to one of those friends just yesterday and I realized that she knows all of my bits and pieces. She knows all of my personality, my quirks and my ‘stuff’. She knows what I’m thinking and how I’m going to react under stress and what pushes my buttons, and she knows that it’s okay and I’ll bounce back after I process and chill. She knows that she’s Miss Bubbly and I’m Mrs. Reserved – but I wish I was more like her, and she has the unique power to make me laugh till my sides hurt. She lives 4000 miles away from me! And we talk every week. Folks, that’s belonging and community. Thank you, Internet! Messenger and Skype and other programs make connection work for us!
What about local community and belonging? Yes, we have that, too. It’s a little tougher. Language and culture sometimes make deep connections harder to come by. It takes a longer time to cultivate. But we have it. We have local friends who do life with us. We have folks who we trust with our stories and our laughter and our tears, and who trust us with theirs. People who are helping us raise our daughter or navigate cultural norms. And there are a few who are on the fringes, who are just now – after 5 years – starting to open up their lives and connect. Trust takes time.
Does it always have to be deep emotional connection to be community? No, not always. McMillan & Chavis define sense of community as "a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together." For my friend, Delilah, the ladies in her gym class are a community. They matter to each other. They notice when someone doesn’t show up and they call or text to check on that person. They cheer each other on in their goals. Do they all have a deep emotional connection? No. But they are connected. They matter to each other.
For Ana (my neighbor across the street), community looks like all the individuals who pass by and chat with her each day. They aren’t part of a formal group. They don’t meet at a designated time. But they all stop and chat with Ana. They matter to Ana. And they notice if she isn’t on her front step. I have seen people knock and call out her name and check if she’s okay, simply because she wasn’t out there when they passed.
The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food. ~Dean Ornish
I’m going to challenge you. Right now – Who are your people? Who is your community? Who comes to mind when you read this? Right now – call them! Text them. Go see them. Reach out. Because this is deeply important! People need connection and community, and people need to be seen and heard and loved. So do it. Right now. Check in and let them know that you’re thinking of them and how important they are to you.
Who am I? In my USA life, I was a teacher for 15 years. I was also a professional photographer, a Southern Living / Martha Stewart wannabe, a soccer mom, and a short term mission team coordinator / intern director for missions in Mexico... you name it, I probably tried it!
In 2006, my husband Billy and I became cross-cultural workers (CCWs) with TMS Global. For five years, we served in three rural Quechua Wanca villages in the Andes of Peru. And when I say rural, I mean RURAL - like no potty! We have three incredible children... two adult boys who live in Texas, and the princess Sarah (13) lives with us in whatever country we are serving. I'm still teaching, still taking photos, still leading teams and mentoring, I just do it all in full-time service now! And I'm working hard at giving Southern Living and Martha Stewart a run for their money! I spent my days in Peru learning to live a Quechua lifestyle in a rustic adobe house - cooking Peruvian foods, sewing with Quechua women, raising my chickens and goats and pigs, and planting my gardens. Now I live my life in el campo in Spain, serving other cross-cultural workers and immigrant peoples, writing, and trying to figure out what life looks like for a Texas girl serving Christ in Southern Europe. Life in His service is AWESOME! I'm happy to share it with you here... Enjoy!