Crave a Sense of Belonging? Finding a Community Helps
The other day Margaret was schmoozing with the concierge in her new apartment building who told her he’s worked there for 10 years and loves his job. “What do you love most about it?” Margaret asked. “It feels like family,” he said.
What does that mean? It’s simple. The concierge thinks that he matters in his job, to the residents and his colleagues. It’s the same feeling of belonging that we get when we join any group whether at work or in our free time. We feel a part of a larger community where we can contribute to others’ lives and they to ours.
Margaret joined a grief support group when her husband died so she could hear how others were coping and share their experiences. Barbara joined a Jewish class to learn more about her religion because she knew her young grandsons would know a lot due to their more observant parents.
Both women didn’t want to learn and cope on their own because they believe there is strength in numbers. Being part of a group or community is also healthy. It’s become commonly accepted knowledge that feeling isolated and alone isn’t good for your psyche or physical health. And being with others can also be joyful.
We get these feelings. It saddens us when nobody seems to care if we cry, scream, sit alone and are silent. We’ve found it’s discouraging when we enter a room and nobody looks up to say, “Hello, how are you? How is your day going?”
Unfortunately, too many people think they can erase this empty feeling by going online. There’s a mistaken perception that having hundreds, if not thousands, of friends on Facebook or seeing others’ posts on Instagram and other online communities, will keep them from feeling lonely. Ironically, it reinforces the loneliness and isolation. There is no emotional feedback other than typed messages that can fall as flat as a missed note in music.
The reality of online connections is that these aren’t friends in the true sense of the word. When push comes to shove and you’ve spent most of your time behind a screen rather than out and about meeting people face to face, many find they have few friends they can count on—frankly, no more than on the fingers of one or maybe both hands. Social media friends are not typically there for you in the way that matters most—to call and say--not online--but by voice, “How are you?” or even better, “How about getting together this weekend or what are you doing for your birthday? I’d love for us to see one another in person.”
Sadly, these types of true one-on-one friendships don’t spring up overnight but take months or years to cultivate. And through the years, they require lots of caring and nurturing to remain strong. Many of us formed these strong bonds when we were very young, in high school or college, even as young first-time mothers meeting other young mothers.
But there are other types of friends to be found as you age with whom you can connect, feel involved and far from isolated when your close friends aren’t around. One of the best ways to find them is by getting involved in some type of community of like-minded folks.
Yes, it can be a risk. You may not instantly or ever become good friends when you sign up for a weekly Pilates or yoga class, a knitting group, painting workshop or when you start saying “hello” to people in your building elevator and asking them their names. But the chances are great that you’ll click with one or two when you go week after week and for months, maybe years, to class or keep saying “hello” as you pass your building acquaintances in the elevator, a lobby or mailroom.
A friendship may develop gradually. You might not want to go out to coffee or lunch right away with anyone and certainly not to dinner or a movie. However, your face will light up when you see them in the lobby of your building or drug store and you’ll get a warm fuzzy feeling of “Hey, I like you and would like to get to know you better.” Over time you’re likely to begin sharing a bit about yourself—that you live in apartment XX with a great park view or that you have a dog you always take out at 6 a.m. in the morning, so you’re up early. “Let’s walk together,” the person might suggest. And maybe they’ll share that they have lived in the building for 10 years or so, just love the staff and working out in its gym. A conversation gets going and you feel more a part of this monolithic structure where you had felt so anonymous and alone.
Finding this kind of friend and community can be more important when you’re down in the dumps and feeling anchorless. Christina Pavlina understood the importance of this concept after she was divorced seven years ago. Three years later she founded a loose organization to help divorced women find their way and form friendships. It became an official nonprofit a year ago, named “Janedoeswell.org” for two reasons: a nod to the pseudonym Jane Doe and fact that divorce can happen to anyone and the understanding that divorced women will be okay on their own. “The most frequently asked question at the onset of divorce, we’ve learned, is ‘Will I be OK?’ We wanted to reassure women that yes they would,” says Pavlina.
A friend had helped her along the way, and she wanted to help others. “When going through my divorce process after 20 years of marriage, a friend took my hand and continuously reassured me that we were going to go through my divorce together. She got me out of bed some mornings, went with me to see my lawyer, and helped me manage the constant flow of ups and downs until I could stand on my own feet. Having been through divorce herself, she was daily proof that I would eventually feel whole. Convinced of the power of friendship through divorce, I began to reach out to other women who were divorcing in my suburban Boston area and offer my support,” she says.
Even though she had many good friends to lean on from years living in St. Louis, Margaret joined a grief-support group at a sister hospital to where her husband was being treated to broaden her network. She found that being with others who had experienced a similar loss gave her strategies to cope and offered the possibility of new friendships, a bonus she had never expected. Though she stopped going to the group after a little more than a year, she occasionally got together with some members in St. Louis before she moved to NYC.
And now that she’s moved to New York City, she’s building new communities by being open to the possibility of friendship with those she meets quite randomly--in her apartment building, on a bus or subway platform, in a class, even waiting in a grocery store line. She hopes to take some classes and find a temple to join to create another community. Yet, she still finds it somewhat intimidating to walk into a group of strangers and become part of an existing community. She must be a bit more outgoing than she normally is, ask questions and be pro-active in seeing if others want to continue a conversation outside the group. If she took the easy way out and stayed home, she knows she would never feel accepted.
Barbara has found similar opportunities, some she never suspected. When she started her religion class, the goal simply was to improve her limited knowledge but after several months she and some fellow students found they enjoyed each other’s company so much they got together outside class for lunch and dinner. In fact, the group members felt so bonded after their weekly meetings for two years that they asked their main teacher if she would continue teaching them about another, related subject. She agreed, and the little band of 12 continued to deepen its bond. Its last formal session ended this past Tuesday, and they’re thinking how to retain the connection.
It’s solitary to knit, paint, read a book, practice an instrument, surf the internet, write or even pray. Join a group and knit collectively and share techniques and stories that have nothing to do with knitting. Sing in a choir or chorus, play your instrument in a chamber group or neighborhood symphony, join a book club and read books you might never have considered, take a class. You can also find a synagogue or church where you can pray and sing together. Seek out a writer’s group. The possibilities are endless.
There are no rules about how large a community must be, how often it meets, where and whether food or drink is served and how nicely dressed you must be. If you’re joining, look around, take note of what you see and hear, accept the rules and try it out.
Sometimes no close friendships will develop but the community still might offer comfort and a sense of belonging by providing a regular activity where you feel welcome and a part of what’s taking place. And that’s its main goal—to give you a sense of belonging, kinship that you matter and antidote to being out in this world all alone.
Four tips to help you build a community, from Christina Pavlina, founder of Janedoeswell.org, an online and live community:
Pavlina’s organization has grown to include 350 members, from aged 30 to the mid-80s, who get together in person and meet online. Most are between 50 and 60 years and represent a variety of professions and circumstances. The goal is for members to feel a sense of community. (Barbara recently spoke at an October gathering about her and Margaret’s last book, Suddenly Single after 50 (Roman & Littlefield.) Another group is forming in a different part of Boston and the seeds have been planted by a former Boston member for a group in California. By the time many have formed new lives post-divorce, many have forged such strong bonds with other members so that they don’t want to abandon the tribe and continue to come to meetings, Pavlina says.
- Don’t plan where the organization might go, how you will fund it, either. Instead open yourself to the idea of helping and being with like-minded others. You will find that momentum builds and then follow that path.
- Once you recognize there’s a group core of members who will support the organization, focus on them by building partnerships and listening to their ideas.
- Reach beyond this core without being afraid of being turned down. You may find that many married women and men in our case wanted to assist. Develop and finetune your “elevator speech” of what your group is about. Go out and ask for help for what you need.
- Think about your community being forward-thinking rather than status quo. You want your group to represent something positive in life beyond divorce and the war stories. Many women started out as divorced women, now we like to describe them as courageous women with fuller, richer lives. These are the women who inspire one another because they’re in touch with their authentic selves.