“Community is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, the flowing of personal identity into the world of relationships” (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, 90).
“Community” is a buzzword today, I hear it everywhere. It is preached by pastors, it is pushed by my professors; trendy restaurants have communal tables. It is an ideal of cultural interaction that, in my opinion, is easier said than done. More often than not, it is done artificially, because if community is the big picture of human interaction than why do violence and intolerance prevail? What I think is missing (and I have to give Mr. Palmer credit for illuminating this for me) is individual self-awareness. And since my generation is most commonly typified as the wandering, wavering, confused, quick-gratification generation, I believe I must ask myself who I am before I level the carbine at anyone else.
To know who I am I must define my values, I must name my motivations, I must investigate my interests to get at the real heart of my passions. Max Morden, the protagonist in Jon Banville’s The Sea, equates knowing oneself to being oneself. To allow one’s quirks and qualities to maturate and inform personality and behavior is to overcome situational hardships and be present in one’s community. Who we are, of course, is not defined by our circumstances or even our predispositions but by our reactions to, choices about and realizations within situations. At least I think.
This last bit is difficult, because many would say we are shaped by our experiences. Certainly this is true to an extent; children who pass through multiple homes in the foster care system begin to feel unloved, while children who grow up with both parents around are more likely to be better readers and students. On the other hand, people like Somaly Mam, who doesn’t even know her real age because her early years were stolen from her in a Cambodian brothel, are inspired by their own tragedies to build a better future for others. Being yourself is a lot easier than explaining why you are that way. Even harder still is liking yourself.
Liking and accepting the traits and personality flaws that I have been given is exceptionally difficult for me (and probably most of the world), but they are pivotal to knowing myself. I know that I am judgmental, and I hate it. Being able to recognize it, though, is part of fixing it or applying it in positive ways. I know that I am fiercely independent, and I know that that must be transformed into interdependence if I am going to have a successful marriage. I used to laugh when people said that they were “working on” this or that aspect of their lives, because I really didn’t there was actually any physical work going on. I’m still not sure how to “work on” turning my faults into assets, but I like the idea of taking time to be mindful of myself, my thoughts and the words I want to use before I use them.