Many years ago, I wrote a Master’s thesis on how communities could be a healthy and necessary context for individual wholeness. During my undergrad years, I had been enamoured with the ideals of “intentional communities” that had sprung up throughout the 60s and 70s. Their track records were very mixed, ranging from the impressive example of experiments like Reba Place Fellowship to the dramatic cults and their collapses, like the Branch Davidians. Across the spectrum there was usually a powerful sense of togetherness and mutual support within the communities, but some led to a resilient and healthy individuality while others, clearly, did not.
healthy individuals have commitments to more than one community
My study had a variety of conclusions, but the most significant one was that healthy individuals have commitments to more than one community. Whenever people weren’t open to a “second set of lenses” to correct the errors and distortions that are present within every community, they were in trouble. Single communities, in the language of my thesis, were “idolatrous” when they discouraged their members from being challenged by views outside of their boundaries. The “truths” or “gods” of isolated communities were small and weak, unable to lead anyone to wholeness.
It never dawned on me at the time that these principles could seem so important on a societal level decades later. I had expected our increasingly multicultural and diverse world to make my conclusions relevant only to smaller, isolated communities.
Now, however, it seems like polarization has created huge in-groups that only see within the passionate worldviews of their own group’s loudest and most blaring voices. Emotions quickly shut down people’s brains when they hear critiques because they’ve so stridently put all their eggs into one basket. Over-sensitized perceptions of victimization that minimize courage and resiliency shut down conversations.
We are desperate for spaces that promote more breadth and depth of understandings. We all need to be intentionally listening to and seriously considering a diverse range of perspectives. We need to be open to correction, especially when everyone outside of my in-group disagrees.
I am not advocating for a bland middle ground but a large and flexible space in which a huge diversity of perspectives intermingle and a living, breathing wisdom emerges. It’s true (as some are saying lately) that it is probably not helpful to reach too far to the extremes as we nurture this spacious conversation. As long as people are locked into a single perspective, they simply can’t participate in that spacious conversation, no matter how much acceptance or breadth there is.
But the beauty of that space – wide and deep and compassionate toward all, if we nurture it well – will shine and keep drawing in some from the extremes. And even if those narrow extremes now seem to encompass huge fractions of the population, we can hope they will shrink and become less and less appealing as it becomes apparent that isolated echo chambers don’t give life or love.