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Tribe or Community?

I have become increasingly convinced that the most common “mental health” problems – anxiety, depression, anger, addictive behaviors, relationship problems – are usually rooted in a lack of intimate connection with others. As I have explored this situation in US society, I have come to recognize that there are a couple of different types of relationship that we often get confused about. I would suspect that there are recognized terms for these relationship categories in sociology, but until I discover what those are I am calling these Tribes and Communities.

A Tribe is ‘your people’ in a deeply meaningful way that is based on an important commonality, probably something that is core to some aspect of your identity. Your Tribe could be based in almost anything you share in common, which could be professional, religious, political, regional, ethnic, a shared passion, or a shared experience. Whatever it is, you share it with your fellow Tribespeople.

You can be confident that people in your Tribe will get you without much effort, at least concerning your area(s) of commonality. When you are with your Tribe, you feel normal and accepted. With your Tribe, you can talk at length about the brilliance of Aristotle or how marvelous collies are without fear of disdainful looks or glassy eyes. They get it.

A Community is different. Community is generally based, at least in part, on chance circumstance. The neighborhood you live in, the school your kids go to, the church you were raised in. The things you share in common with other members of the Community may be considerably less personal and profound to you than the things you share in common with your Tribe.

In terms of personality and values, Community is usually more diverse than a Tribe. It may include people with whom you share little beyond geographical proximity. Some of them might be people you wouldn’t voluntarily choose to be in relationship with. You may not even want to talk to them. Yet, for whatever reason, when you try to participate in Community, there they are.

Growing up, I dreamed of finding my Tribe. Although Community was readily available, it did not interest me. In the absence of a Tribe, Community seemed like a letdown, a place where I was constantly reminded that I didn’t fit in.

The first time I felt I had found my Tribe, in graduate school in a spiritually and socially progressive counseling psychology program, I got a surprise: it was also a Community. There were people I loved like long-lost siblings and others who I found irritating and incomprehensible, and some circles included both.

Furthermore, being in Community forced me to be in contact with some of those irritating people. Over time, I discovered that they had strengths and abilities that I was initially blind to. Some of them felt differently about me than I felt about them, and they reached out to me and humbled me with their courageous vulnerability.

Some of those people actually became part of my Tribe. Many of those people never became part of my Tribe, but they became part of my Community. Not in an I’ll-put-up-with-her-if-I-have-to kind of way, but in recognition that the Community would be less complete without her (or him). That, by extension, I would be less complete without her.

For most of human history you didn’t have any choice about who was in your Community, there was no other Community available, and getting along with your Community was necessary for survival. In modern US society, we tend to believe that we do not need Community, and we certainly do not need to put up with people who make us uncomfortable. We can spend all of our time interacting electronically with our Tribes; who needs Community?

But Community is where we hear from people who think and perceive differently from ourselves. Community is where, ideally, we learn to be compassionate and respectful towards those people. In the process, we learn about our own weaknesses and blind spots, and have opportunities for kinds of growth and humility that are less available in our comfortable Tribes.

The experience of a Tribe is wonderful, and we all need that. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to use your Tribe (or pseudo-Tribe) to avoid engaging in Community, whether through a romantic relationship as a Tribe of two or living online. If this describes you, consider opening yourself to the rewarding challenges of Community.

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