Why You Should Be... Building Community

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.
— Seneca

Many years ago I took the Myers-Briggs personality test as part of a corporate leadership training program. Without revealing the test results to the 20 or so participants the facilitator asked us to line ourselves up by where each of us thought we scored on the Extrovert-Introvert spectrum (this is one of the four axes, or emotional preferences, that are assessed as part of the Myers-Briggs instrument, the other three being Intuitive-Sensing, Thinking-Feeling and Judging-Perceiving).

I've always considered myself to be an outgoing, gregarious guy who made friends easily so I positioned myself at the far end of the Extroversion spectrum, with the other class clowns, loud-mouths and Type-A personalities. Once we were all self-positioned, the facilitator re-positioned us based on where we actually scored. When she was finished re-shuffling us I found myself much closer to the median than I expected, with only a mild preference for Extroversion over Introversion. It surprised me to learn that I wasn't as outgoing or prone to socializing as I thought I was.

But the more I thought about it the more it started to make sense to me. Extreme extroverts don't really like to be alone for very long; they need the engagement of other people to feel alive. I, however, have always been happy to spend hours on my own. I find the solitude afforded by reading, solo hiking and writing rejuvenating, expansive. These and other solitary activities help me reconnect to myself and prepare me to re-engage with the world.

It has always been this way. I remember playing and drawing and reading for long stretches when I was a kid. But I don't ever remember feeling lonely. I trusted that the world outside my window -- my friends, school, ball games -- would be there when I was once again ready for them.

I recognize, however, that not everyone finds it so easy to flow between extroversion and introversion, from community to solitude, and back again. Some people are more comfortable camping out at either extreme, either totally on or totally off. This can be problematic for some people that are prone to introversion to the point of self-imposed isolation.

According to a 2018 study by the insurance company Cigna, loneliness is now a public health threat that's more harmful to Americans than obesity and has a similar impact on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Being lonely can adversely impact sleep, increase stress and inflammation and weaken the immune system. Loneliness has also been correlated with heart disease, cognitive decline and the onset of frailty later in life.

The study, paradoxically, found that American adults between the ages of 18-37 (Generation Z and Millennials) suffer the worst health effects from loneliness. The generation of digital natives, with their curated social media lives and legions of followers and "friends," turns out to be the loneliest of Americans, lonelier even than the graying Baby Boomer and Greatest generations (ages 52 and over). A two-dimensional relationship rendered on a glowing screen, it stands to reason, isn't nearly as rich or meaningful or nourishing (or challenging or aggravating or emotionally fraught) as a real relationship with another three-dimensional human being.

But real community isn't two-dimensional. Real community can't even be contained in three dimensions. Real community is n-dimensional.

Real community makes demands of us. It isn't satisfied by pretty vacation pictures or carefully posed and artfully lit selfies. It isn't content with gliding along the surface of appearances. Real community demands intimacy, and repays the investment in kind.

Real community is a sanctuary in times of turmoil. Real community draws us back into relationship when we want to run and hide. Real community beckons forth, sometimes gently, sometimes more forcefully, the better angels of our nature. Real community simultaneously reveals us to ourselves, including the parts we don't want to see, and challenges us to always strive to be better than we are.

Our communities -- of family and friends, mentors and mentees, guides and teachers -- are bulwarks against the deleterious effects of loneliness on our health and well-being. But building community takes work. Building community requires that we continuously cultivate relationships that nurture us and that call upon us to nurture others. Building community is intentional, as intentional as building careers or building strong and resilient bodies.

And this can be hard, especially for introverts. Or people who learn, belatedly, that they aren't as extroverted as they assumed they were. I've developed several hacks, some conscious and others unconscious, which have enabled me to build and sustain decades-long friendships and intimacies that transcend time, place and professional setting. I've prioritized the quality of these relationships over quantity, and I seek to give as much if not more than I receive.

Because as much as I value my solitude, my time to think and ponder and work through the Big Questions, I am inevitably drawn back to my community, to the people who call forth the best in me, who hold me accountable to the highest vision I have for myself, and who help me from backsliding into unconscious, unhealthy, often deeply ingrained patterns of behavior.