I am not a natural joiner of groups, but life has often provided me with reasons to do so. It is as if my comfort zone needs frequent testing and expanding, like I am being asked to develop greater fluidity of mind and spirit. It is not usual that I’ve been coerced (though that has happened, too). If I include my family I was a joiner of musicians from the first breath. Then came sports and other activities to pursue, talents to hone (or abandon) while in competition with others, academic coursework to seek alongside more students. There is a long list of summer camps, workshops, conferences, churches and their smaller groups, treatment centers, recovery groups. Assorted special gatherings (Native American pow wows, holiday parties, weddings, funerals, etc.). Volunteer work and ever-changing jobs. Musical and theatre groups. Writing groups, book groups. As a youth in the sixties I was a joiner for purposes of social and educational change. And I briefly joined a group that had mysterious chanting and left me dizzy for a few ecstatic hours.
I have praised these groups or hidden them, added them to resumes or trotted them out in interviews for new positions. And I still search for a couple that will fit me well now.
Think about it, all the joining that has gone on in your life. If you are like me, you either do so because of shared interests and goals or it is more or less a requirement or you believe it will aid future endeavors. Surprising outcomes have likely occurred. You get to put on all sorts of hats, enjoy different interactions. Everywhere I end up there have been good reasons I might benefit from group inclusion. In theory and generally in practice I do appreciate other human beings. I pull up a chair and join, even if I am not always at ease and wonder what can be gained or shared.
But I admit this joining occurs despite a near-constant pull to solitude. The anchor of it amid life’s ceaseless shifting of demands and distractions. The satisfying yield of hours spent perusing ideas and exploring a spectrum of interests. I feel time is like breath, it sustains my life or is not good. More extroverted persons might be inclined to suggest introverts are more selfish. I have experienced the direct opposite, a release from self-centeredness and that nagging, attention-grabbing ego when engaged in solitary activities. My mind frees up, the restless ego sits in a corner, and my intellect and spirit begin to escape confines of societal limitations. There is no one to worry over, impress or surrender to. The clarifying of thought and opening of heart occur readily.
Perhaps in another life or time I might have sought religious sanctuary. A studious and pensive life, asceticism, constant communion with God–these are magnets for me (admittedly romanticized by lack of prolonged experience). I likely inherited some of this from my parents: they contrasted very public personas with private, my musician father inventing games and fixing cars, seeking knowledge and prayer; my teacher mother withdrawing to design and create with fabric and thread, write down thoughts, study Psalms, tend flowers in the yard. They both filled up with whatever drew them inward. I know the feeling.
So there is this dichotomy, one among others. I am certain this “push-pull” is shared with lots of people. Creatures of complex desires, and contradictions, we become immersed in the physical realm then yearn for greater understandings or richer spirituality. We love our earth but wonder over other galaxies or dimensions. And there arises a twinge of loneliness with the love of solitude. I, a restless seeker, yearn for like-mindedness again and wonder where are those who share my callings, passions, beliefs. And so I consider another group. The problem is, often I still feel alone. The partial solution is better grasping that each and every one of us is alone–even as we are a part of the conglomeration of Homo sapiens, sharing a planet in one of innumerable universes. I embrace this far more comfortably than I did fifty years ago. I am an ordinary soul among all others yet we each are particularly ourselves, powerfully unalike. Our eyes–those conduits to our inner being–when meeting, know this.
When I review my life, I find a seat around countless tables with mixed company: some strangers, some friends; those female and male; believers in Christianity seated with believers in other faiths or in their own self-determination. We have spoken of both sacred and secular trials and shared lessons bringing us to greater understandings. There have been individuals who have endured follies unlike mine and met with victories I have never known. And some who may as well have been telling much of my own story. And at work meetings I have at times just stopped myself from rebutting a boss’ decree or fleeing the room. Some mediations have resulted in more fractious discussion; others have brought sudden enlightenment. But first you have to say “yes”, agree to participate. Cohesion of a group depends on willingness of others to join in and support the meeting of minds.
From each group I take what seems useful, turn it over in my thinking and being. The rest I leave on tabletop. I do not carry anxiety or fear or anger with me if I can help it. What matters is a basic respect for others, for how their own souls thrive and seek even if their ways are not mine. I have faced being the odd one out and believe compassionate detachment brings better outcomes than judgment.
A common experience of mine is having to explain how I experience my faith in God, why I came to believe what I do. It started long ago, at about age 5 in Sunday school when I said that God did not look like an aged grandfather since God is Spirit. I was met with odd looks and questions. I wasn’t sure what the reaction was about but was sure of what I meant. In my current Christian women’s group we shared our first memory of church. Most offered experiences praying with parents or their childhood church building or hymns sung together. I shared the above anecdote of about age five. I was asked once again how I had come up with that idea. I said I may have heard it at home but the truth is, I just felt it deeply. Embraced it as I always felt embraced by God.
There has not been a time when I didn’t sense God watching over me–and all of us. Despite the horrors of this world, despite a seeming lack of answers to life problems or my own soul at times feeling wrenched, forlorn at certain junctures. But neither did I feel altogether at home in this physical vehicle and in this earthly life. As a child or as a youth, I saw life in different ways than most I knew, though it took years to understand it. Where someone else perceived the appearances of things, I was drawn into the multi-layered center of them. When someone saw the withered face of a crooked old man I saw a vibrant soul if a bit tired and cramped. When someone else saw the pretty blue sky I saw God’s territory stretching beyond our imaginings. Life in all its wonders exceeds our interminable need to box things up in simple equations. To me there were and are endless connections of one thing to another such as a single leaf’s veins and veins of my body and the pathways of distant celestial bodies: to me, they are each a stunning facet of the great Design. God is in the morning and night, in sorrow and joy, in creation and meditation.
I countered the raised eyebrows of teenage friends: Who said we were the only sentient beings? Why believe we cannot read feeling, thought and needs of others when we each are given another sense of intuition? Why this separation from God, from each other, from our own selves? Can we not overlap belief and actions more freely? Is there really so little room for uniqueness while sharing common ground? I desired unity and wholeness–in microcosm or macrocosm, It was already present. We just needed to recognize it. But I felt adrift then, and can still feel that way when I forget we are taught to live with daily illusions, put on masks to get by, feign interest and understanding when raising our hands with a question makes far more sense. We are informed we need to blend in when the beauty is in our differences as well as our similarities.
The groups I have joined are often rife with an underlying anxiety about how we identify. If attending, say, Alcoholics Anonymous, one is first and last an alcoholic. If in a church group, one is a member or being schooled to be a member of that denomination. In political groups, one’s party is of paramount importance. In a private club, the involvement is dependent on qualifiers that allow you to be an exclusive member. As a counselor, I signed a code of ethics agreement but further, I had to meet expectations of the organization with little to no resistance. If a member of an order serving God, then all partake of the same vows. No matter to what we attach ourselves, we agree to a creed, a commitment, a mission. Otherwise, we are likely to be suspect or not serious in our intent–or otherwise ill-suited to the culture of the group. Rules matter; they help keep in place needed structure. Yet I am not convinced this is always the way that works best for diverse human living–at least when it is about being on a lifelong quest of the soul. We are more than the obvious, and more than our genes or resumes or talents. We are spiritual and, I believe, eternal beings living short human lives.
I recently read an article about Thomas Merton, the mystic, poet and Trappist monk. He stirred up my far less eloquent and lofty thoughts with a few sentences from his journal entry over sixty years ago:
“If you want to find satisfactory formulas you had better deal in formula. The vocation to seek God is not one of them. Nor is existence. Nor is the spirit of man.”
Merton devoted himself to seeking God and lived half his life in a monastery. He sought profound connection to others amid his solitariness and greater silence, needed nourishment of mutual understanding. He wrote over 70 volumes on social justice, spirituality and pacifism and rallied for interfaith understanding. Merton wanted to experience belonging here and now in this world as well as with God in ways mere–powerful but limited–language cannot bring access.
There are things we tend to keep to ourselves, even when we identify as part of a group. I have often kept to myself my experiences of God-moving-with-us, of near death, of intuition and angelic presences, among others. I wonder what would happen if we shared our uniqueness around a table and in the world more easily. What might someone find in our experience that could reassure or liberate or comfort? There is a risk in being wholly one’s self, in a group or even alone.
The worlds within us are reflections of who we are separately and together. We each have wisdom, stories and good questions to offer. We live and die within a far-ranging confederacy of human beings. In our particular groups we can make a difference for good or ill. There is potency in joining together, even if it includes a handful neighbors on your block. So I would hope you and I each can take a seat at a table, then be able to say without fear or disregard: “This is my truth. What is yours? And how can we share resources to make the whole better?” I’ll be coming back to that group, and it will influence my time alone, as well.