Among the slew of ways to think about communities, the one that shapes us the most and that we can influence the least, is our community of origin.
We have no control, for better or worse, over the family setting into which we’re born (or lateralled, if we’re adopted or fostered). The nature of the nurture granted us in our families of origin – our first communities – determines a lot about how we’ll carry ourselves in the world the rest of our lives. Growing up poor too often means lousy nutrition, crappy health care and limited access to experience of the wider world – all of which can cut one off from having much room at all to think widely or deeply about future paths and possibilities. And no matter our resources, a stressed and squabbling family, along with accompanying psychic or physical trauma, can dampen hopes and dreams, hobbling a person for life with a sense of shame and inadequacy. Wealth and advantage don’t come with a grant of transcending troubles, yet they can insulate us and provide more options when things get tough.
In our original communities, then, it is a steady drip of love and caring from even a single stable, present and consistent adult that often proves a potent equalizer. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this when I watched someone of otherwise humble roots – Kevin Durant, this year’s NBA MVP – overcome with emotion in a press conference, telling his mother sitting in the audience how her unrelenting devotion to him made his success as a man possible. This sort of protection, given with kind words and caring touch by someone we’re sure is for us no matter what, shapes our lifelong ability to attach to others. And It's those attachments that lay the groundwork for a shot at a good and rewarding life.
A very successful businessman and gruff iconoclast I know once said “Paul, there are only insiders and outsiders.” Momentarily stunned by such a stark, reductive notion, I now lend it a note of credence when I think about communities of origin. These are the communities in which, if we’re lucky, we are loved to the very core of our beings by often-imperfect, but recognizably caring, parents. The best kind of parental love enables us to ease more naturally into feeling confident and experiencing ourselves as connected wherever we go. This sense of mastery, even when changes or disruptions come along, is what brings us resilience.
Being an “insider” means that, while moving among your fellow human beings may pose a stretch and present occasional stumbles, eventually you’ll right yourself and find your way into synch with those around you. A generous description of outsider might mean repeatedly coming nose to nose with daunting, haunting and even debilitating or desperate, impossible-stakes struggles that kill or coarsen bonds with others. The worst consequence of that is to remain a mystery to one’s self, stuck and stranded in an existential limbo, confused and confounded by what feels so wrong, distorted or incomplete in trying to form attachments.
What comes either in abundant or short supply in our communities of origin – and we know these things with our guts when they are present or absent – determines how we’ll fare. And over these things we can assert very little, if any, control while growing up and preparing to emerge and take some command in our eventual communities of privilege and choice. The push we get from our starting blocks at birth comes entirely as a matter of chance. From the moments of our enormous early vulnerability until our first stabs at asserting ourselves with a modicum of independence, we are challenged to survive, understand and build from what’s bequeathed us but out of our control.
No matter the fickle effects that come with wealth or poverty and all the variations in between, we’re lucky when the scales of fate and fortune tip us toward communities of origin rich in love, caring, protection, respect, trust, reciprocity and acceptance. In short, the things that invest us with a sense of civility. At the same time, we’re none of us at birth or through life assured a free pass from having hate, neglect, nastiness, narcissism, selfishness, criticism, or brutality either brush too close or envelop us overwhelmingly, posing the risk that we must push ahead nursing wounds or scars or bearing varieties of pain that can chase us into uncivil acts.
Whether we merely endure or forcefully thrive depends on a mixture of our intent and the gaggle of conditions we encounter by chance. Some of us reach a place where we’re ready to capture the value of advantages like extended social networks that lead to jobs, relatives well off enough to leave an inheritance, or an extended family big enough to look out for us and make us feel forever welcome. These I think of as “communities of privilege” that we can capitalize on from the raw material of a lucky birth. Some of us, compelled to make from scratch or build on good fortune, might take the route of finding or sculpting “communities of choice.” Long-time environmental activists, medical workers serving the world’s poorest, people who find good company and good purpose in the performing arts, political junkies who love the rough and tumble of the campaign trail, all are gravitating to communities of choice. These are places populated by others who mirror their values and beliefs, or to which – even when what they see there might at first repel or daunt, excite or astonish them – they decide to commit themselves anyway.
Our access to all possibility comes to us forged in the fires and bathed in the balms of those original communities, the ones where we first breathed life, cocked our ear to others’ voices, and lifted our first tentative hands in an attempt to feel our reach.