5 min read

Broken Communities

Broken Communities
Source: Pinterest

Two of my friends had a fight recently. It was the kind of situation where resolution did not seem possible, or at least easily achieved. They tried talking it out; that only made it worse. Some time has gone by, and things have not gotten better.

I've been trying to preserve a sense of community in my adult life. It's the rare thing we had as children and then didn't anymore. When my friends fight, it threatens the existence of the community. It makes me afraid that soon all my friendships will be individual, with nothing that is able to hold them together anymore.

Recently, though, I've been told to let go of this need for a conflict-free community life. I was venting to a friend about how things feel broken, and that I feel the need to fix them. He said, "Perhaps you need to learn to live with a little brokenness."

In our adult lives, the problem of community is a major one. We all want them, but they go through a lot, from breakups to strained friendships to relocations and marriages. How do we fight these challenges and sustain communities that make us feel seen?

Keeping things together

My response to conflict has always been charting a path to resolution. Not just in my own life, but also in the lives of others: I've always chalked down conflict to a failure of understanding. If only two people could understand each other perfectly, conflict would not exist. It is the gaps in communication, the faulty assumptions, that create and sustain conflict.

I thought that I could untie these knots, and so I must. Whenever my friends have fought in the past, I have tried to get in the middle of it. If only I could help them see the other side, it would all be okay.

It might be true that conflict exists because people don't understand each other well enough. It does not follow, however, that this somehow means it is easy to resolve. A failure to understand is not like a mistake in a math problem that can be easily untied. Often, the factors leading to that failure run deep.

The Separation of Tasks

Living with brokenness, then, is an exercise in humility. Not all conflicts can be resolved. Even if they can, finding such a resolution is often not in my hands. A community can only exist with people who are dedicated participants.

Psychologist Alfred Adler came up with the concept of the 'separation of tasks' that's helpful here. In his imagination, interpersonal dynamics can be neatly separated into tasks. There are my tasks: the areas I'm responsible for: my actions, my thoughts, my beliefs.

There are areas I'm not responsible for, like other people's actions, thoughts, or beliefs. According to Adler, suffering can be chalked down to breaching this separation, whether by taking on other people's tasks or by having other people intervene in my own.

When I take on the burden of sustaining a peaceful community, that entails interfering with other people's tasks. If my friends have a bad fight, it is their task to resolve (or not resolve) it. If I try to control the outcome of the fight, it will involve my meddling with their tasks.

Controlling outcomes

There are people, and then there's the stuff that exists in the middle: friendships, relationships, communities, families. I think it's a mistake to focus too much on the stuff between them because we're in danger of forgetting about the people themselves. We are then only using the people for the stuff in the middle, instead of genuinely treating the people as ends in themselves.

If my friendships are only a way for me to get a sense of community, I will fail to see my friends as individuals in themselves, with desires and feelings that don't always suit the community. Philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said that people must be treated as ends in themselves. For Kant, manipulating them for other ends is a moral wrong.

I thought I'd end up figuring out a hack to building and sustaining a community. I'm only now realizing that such hacks are simply not possible; humans are too unpredictable. A perfect community would look dystopian: participants would be prohibited from behaving in ways that harm the community. Such control undermines the autonomy of the very people who are at the heart of it.

Vibrant communities cannot be built by singular crusaders. They are the stuff that exists in the middle, and every single piece has a stake and contribution to what that stuff looks like. That, I think, is as it should be.

📖 What to read this week

I enjoyed this history of the 'weekend' as an idea, and how deeply it's come to shape our lives today. Here are some of the questions it grapples with:

What is the meaning of the weekday-weekend cycle? Is it yet another symptom of the standardization and bureaucratization of everyday life that social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul have warned about? Is the weekend merely the cunning marketing ploy of the materialist culture, a device to increase consumption? Is it a deceptive placebo to counteract the boredom and meaninglessness of the workplace?
Waiting for the Weekend
A whole two days off from work, in which we can do what we please, has only recently become a near-universal right.