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28 November 2023

Lessons in Community and Self

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

We have done it again. Twelve of us, all stewards of the grand French experiment, sitting in a circle with our therapist/facilitator. All of us freezing in our gorgeous, newly renovated space where the vast improvement doesn’t yet include heat. (Yet.) But the emotions are hot as we unpick the small and large difficulties we’ve accumulated over the last 15 months since we were last all together.

Imagine the scene. We have pulled rumpled furniture into the beautiful new rooms we have just begun to use. We are bundled in sweaters and blankets against the cold, and occasionally the wind blows open one of the windows that won’t latch shut quite yet. After weeks of gorgeous weather, of course we gather in the driving storm. G’s luggage didn’t arrive with her (this happens often these days) and she is layered in borrowed clothes. C can’t get there quite as the circle begins, so we tell loving stories about her and laugh together as we imagine her easy laughter.  And in this space, we explore our relationships to one another and to the community and, always always, to ourselves.

Debbie, our therapist/facilitator/guide, helps us remember important foundational pieces: Our relationships are a resilient web between us, strong enough to hold us through conflict, soft enough to cradle us through difficulty. Our job is to watch the stories we have about each other and ourselves and let those stories pass by like clouds in the windy New Zealand sky. “Arousal”—Debbie’s term for any strong emotion—is a gift that helps us see what’s important to us. Relationships are the strongest context for growth.

And wow we have a lot of relationships. There’s been a lot of growth. And living in a group house in France is not for those who crave a boring life.

Because here’s the big learning. You would guess that when you share a home with eleven other people, you would be bumping into one another all the time. You would guess that there would be plenty of issues we’d need to work with one another. You’re not wrong, but that is not the Big Story. The Big Story is that when you bump into others, you’re really bumping up against your own edges. Each conflict looks like it’s Out There, but really each conflict is In Here. As the old adage has it, wherever you go, there you are. Any sort of difficulty you might have with all these other people is really a small light that illuminates your own growing edge. Feeling angry? There’s an invisible boundary you may not have known you had drawn. Feeling resentful? There’s an invisible hope you probably never articulated. Feeling lonely? There’s an invisible fear that you might not even tell yourself.

There are three layers that stack on top of each other in these meetings. There’s the fabric we have been weaving together out of the strength of our collective relationships which, perhaps because it’s collective, is strong and supple. There’s the story we have about one another as individuals—good, bad, and indifferent (and very often wrong). And there are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, also very often wrong: that we have to be perfect, that we can’t ever be messy or angry, that we don’t belong unless we are of service to the others. That last layer is the hardest one to get your head and heart around.

I spent my days in a circle with these remarkable friends, friends who have given up their old lives on the strength of this new dream. Friends who have struggled through construction site meetings in French, who have researched the best ovens, who have walked my dog while I was overseas. Friends who have cooked me a meal, who have beaten me at cards, who have cleaned up after the remarkable mess I make when I’m on dinner duty. Friends whose courage and kindness are mind- and heart-blowing. Who are so necessary to our community that sometimes I have a panic that there’s a possibility in some alternate universe that they didn’t sign up for this crazy life.

And I spent my nights in the pinball machine that is my head, feeling the ball pinging back and forth and back and forth endlessly, beating myself up for a small misstep that was inadvertently hurtful and for which I had long been forgiven (by others, but not by me). I listened to the annoying and endless chatter in my mind urging me to never make a mistake, to never take a risk, to hide out in the safety of my little office.

Each morning one or another of us would talk about the chatter in the head (turned out mine wasn’t the only pinball machine). We’d voice the difficulty we were having, squinting our faces against the psychological blow we feared: that our weakness or confusion or pain would be exactly the reason for rejection we had always known it was. And each time, we would discover that our demons were our own, that others were more accepting of us than we knew how to be for ourselves.

And so this is the Big News of living in a group house. Of course, there are conflicts and difficulties. Of course, we struggled during this year-long renovation when we were displaced and when our home became a fenced-off construction zone. Of course it was hard and expensive and muddy and overwhelming. And of course it was all in a language some of us (like me) barely speak. Not the Big News. The shock was that we can each be imperfect: can be insecure and lost and angry and needy and confused and sad and that the others will still be there for us. That the fabric we are weaving together is strengthened and not weakened by our humanity.

What would it be like for all of us to know this? What would it offer the world to understand that our conflicts Out There are mostly fuelled by our difficulties In Here? How would that change everything? We humans have it so wrong. We are so quick to take offence, to self-flagellate, to make up a story that makes us or someone else wrong. We are so quick to try to numb or banish discomfort, to tell ourselves that we are misunderstood, to look for blame. But when we let our weapons down—whether they are pointed out at the world or in at our own hearts—we can rest into the fabric of our relationships. The fabric we are weaving is so soft, so strong. It can hold anything.

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