Carole Owens: Community building in trying times

STOCKBRIDGE — I had the great good fortune to know two people with a very special skill. They were community builders. I don't mean community organizers — grass roots politicians who are consensus builders. I mean two people who led a group and connected people; built a sense of belonging, and pleasure in belonging.

People felt special to be a part of their groups. Even if group members began as strangers, they were expertly woven together. They were disparate and disagreed on some things, but disagreements were sorted out with respect and with the acknowledgement that continuing the relationship was more important than winning a point. People sought out these groups and felt better for being a part of them.

I thought about how my two friends did it. The type of group was irrelevant: one led an exercise class; the other led a congregation. The sex and religion of each were irrelevant: one was an Irish Catholic female and the other a Jewish male. They were alike in one way. Both were well-trained, well-prepared, and had a natural affinity for their chosen fields. As a result both did their jobs with ease, high energy and sheer happiness.

A dour but clever friend of mine asked, "Can anyone really be that happy?"

I said, "I think he is."

My friend said, "Where do I convert?"

A model for others

They had in common two core values: to enrich others, and to do so by putting themselves second. What came first was connecting others to knowledge and to one another. They modeled the behavior they believed in and hoped to encourage in others. People sensed that and group members strengthened and supported each other.

Modeling is very powerful. The group watches the leader and accepts the leader's behavior as the norm. Humans are malleable. It is one reason we survived as a species. We adapt and thereby survive. Some of us do so consciously, others intuitively, but we all do it. It is one of many reasons why what leaders do, how they speak, and what values they articulate, are so important.

The politics of "divide and conquer" is not meant for the good of the group. It is meant to solidify the power of the leader. Membership in such a group creates unease, anger, and sadness more often than contentment. This form of leadership is based on different core values.

The current president claims his leadership is creating "a new history." Yes indeed. He is creating new international alliances, a redefined national party, new rules, and a new language. Because it is antithetical to what is familiar, some cannot believe it will continue. They say it must be an anomaly. They remind us the results of the 2016 election make the current president a minority president. They cannot imagine he will gain a majority or win a single subsequent election. However he certainly may. If so, the new norms will persist, and each of us will decide how to adapt; decide what our role will be in this new history of America.

Perhaps all any of us can do is decide to become a community builder. We can stand where we are, look around, do what we can for whomever we can. Perhaps all we can do is decide firmly — to always offer help and kindness. Say hello to a stranger; you may be the only person who speaks to that person on that day. Help a friend.

Consider, even when a neighbor does something you don't like, the neighbor may have meant well. Consider a slight may be inadvertent. Remember that every human being deserves a dignified response. Know that you are not better than the one who needs your help, and you are never diminished by accepting help yourself.

Fight 'new norms'

As the new history is written, community building and simple kindness may get harder and harder; may even be belittled, but it may be all most of us can do. Refusing to adapt to the new norms may be the best we can do. Winning may not be possible, we may only be able to work to restore balance.

Our country recently withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Once it was emblematic of our approach to world affairs.The current administration explained it did so because, "We don't need anyone else telling us how to run our country."

Perhaps now, more than ever, we do.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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