Waiting for Everyman: some thoughts on building community

Waiting here for Everyman —
Make it on your own if you think you can
If you see somewhere to go I understand
Waiting here for Everyman —
Don’t ask me if he’ll show — I don’t know
Make it on your own if you think you can
Somewhere later on you’ll have to take a stand
Then you’re going to need a hand …
Jackson Browne, For Everyman

Watching this solo acoustic version at the Amnesty International Concert/Secret Policeman’s Ball on video is higly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr-hqAjdNrU

I first learned about community when I was sixteen. I didn’t learn it from my own family, or from the people who lived around me in our rundown part of town: I learned it from a diverse group of mostly crusty and hard-bitten alcoholics in the recovery room of the local alcoholism information centre, where my mother then worked. For the best part of a year, while my schoolfriends were out at the local disco or youth club (yes, we had such anachronisms in the mid-70s…) I spent every spare moment hanging out in that room, where I received the education of my life. Quite apart from the more practical aspects of that education (I can still beat most people I’ve ever met at darts) what I predominantly learned from that curiously mixed group of dustbinmen, itinerants, steel workers, priests, doctors and ex-Army majors – men and women, of all ages, shapes, sizes and many different nationalities – was how to hold together a community. Specifically: how it could be possible that this diverse group of people could empathise with and actively support people whose social and family background and view of the world was vastly different from their own – people who they would almost certainly dislike intensely if they met them in another context. I learned that much of what made that possible derived from the simple fact that the group of people who gathered together in that room for support were required above all to listen. From this simple act of open listening they grew to understand what had made the people they were listening to as they were, to literally understand where they were coming from. That act of compassionate listening was possible in good part because the listeners had almost always had their own experience of the extremity and the pain that was being shared by the speaker.

I witnessed some of the most astonishing feats of moral and physical support, empathy, compassion, and simple grace during that year. I witnessed more inspiring human behaviour from this group of people – people who would be considered by much of our ‘civilised’ modern society to be down-and-outs who are beneath their notice – than I have ever witnessed in supposedly much more ‘civilised’ situations during the decades since. I learned more than I have ever learned about caring, supportive community in a situation where the members of that community were not only as different from each other as can be, but were often difficult, challenging, combative, filled with anger, pain, memories of abuse … I learned above all, and have insisted upon it ever since, that no matter what horrors we may sometimes inflict upon ourselves, others, and the wider world, human beings are capable of astonishing feats of courage and compassion in the most unlikely circumstances.

Nevertheless, I’ve worked also with groups of people where the practice of healthy community can be very much harder to build. Back in the mid-2000s in the midst of my narrative psychology practice I was working with a number of organisations in the field of conflict resolution based on storytelling. One of the people who inspired me greatly (and whose ideas I still use in current related work) is Okanagan writer, educator and activist Jeanette Armstrong. Here’s a quote from an article in which she talks about the process of traditional Okanagan decision-making in the community:

‘… in our decision-making process we have a word, enowkinwixw, which demands four things from us, and they all have equal weight. These are the needs of the individual in being an individual, the needs of a family in being a family, the needs of community in being a community, and the needs of the living relatives on the land. We use that process continuously in an informal way in our community. We can also engage this construct in a formal way. Robert’s Rules of Order, for instance, is thought of as a democratic construct in which the understanding of democracy is that the majority have the decision-making power. From my perspective, embedded in that construct is an adversarial approach. It sets up a construct in which there is always going to be conflict. There are always going to be those people who are in the minority and those who are in the majority and the subsequent oppression of the minority. I understand that is probably the easiest way to do things. But in terms of looking at what the outcome is in this country and on the land and globally, it seems to me that, systemically, we might want to rethink how that works. From our native point of view, the minority voice is the most important voice to consider. It is the minority voice that expresses the things that are going wrong, the things we’re not being responsible toward, the things that we’re being aggressive about or trying to sweep under the carpet or shove out the door. Our leaders would say that if we ignore the minority voice, it will create conflict in our community, and this conflict will create a breakdown that’s going to endanger all of us….’

Jeanette then goes on to describe how ‘speakers’ are elected to represent each of these four ‘participants’ in the decision-making process. So, for example, there is one who speaks for the land, another is elected to speak for the community … and so on: ‘All four of those components within community participate in a decision-making process. The process becomes not only participatory, but inclusive. This gives people a deeper understanding of the variety of components that are required to create harmony within community.’

For those of you who are involved in groups, organisations, communities who are struggling to work through personality issues and other conflicts, I strongly recommend reading Jeanette’s work, some of which can be found around the internet, and also in a number of very fine books.