Defining Terms

Like a Misfit

What is it about “fitting in” that so interests us? Why do we so often talk about community, about the place where we are accepted and welcomed? It seems that I have recently been running into a lot of instances of people talking about those who fit in, are accepted, and those who aren’t.

On Sunday, the teaching at church was about the description of the early church being communist. Each person considered his possessions to be communal, and they all lived and shared among themselves. The pastor told of a story from a book that tells of a US American who went to live with a Mayan tribe in Guatamala. This tribe taught him that true community involves continued indebtedness to the others in community. In this way, each person’s life is deeply tied to the others’. The pastor noted that in modern Anglo-Saxon North America, we do not believe this. We keep very exact records of our friendships, and are always careful to repay favors with favors. When “I owe you one”, I fully intend to pay you back.

Upon reflection, I realized that this is one of the hardest things for me to do: ask another person for a favor. I am somehow completely uncomfortable with the idea of asking someone to make a sacrifice for me. The Mayans said coming to want indebtedness is part of growing up. Perhaps this is one of the greatest signs of my immaturity. At lunch after church I suggested during the discussion that perhaps it is the permanence of indebtedness that is so scary. If you owe so much to another, how can you leave that person? We tend to hold our independence and freedom so dearly in the United States. I wonder if that is robbing us of our communities.

Early in the week, I read a novel by Cory Doctorow that also explores the ideas of community. In Doctorow’s future, community is defined solely by common interest. So, someone living in London who finds community in Boston will simply alter his sleep schedule so he can interact with them (online) while Boston is awake, during the day in Eastern Standard Time. So, these social groups, or tribes, form, centered around time zones. You look out for your tribe, you work for your tribe, you sacrifice for your tribe.

Doctorow talks about loyalty. What does it mean to be loyal to your community? He suggests it means to put the good of the group ahead of your own personal gain. However, as Christians, we are called to put the good of all others ahead of our own, not just the people in our community. Does that mean we are not to have loyalty to our community, at least in Doctorow’s definition of loyalty? Philosopher John E. Hare suggests that we have a special and God-given responsibility towards those in our community. By this principle, we should give preference to our community over those not in it. While this would make some things easier, it seems like it would lead to selfishness and injustice, so I don’t think I buy it.

Yesterday, I watched the movie “Party Monster”. It tells the story of Michael Alig, a kid from the midwest who went to New York and led the Club Kids scene in the 80s. He ended up murdering a drug dealer, and is now in prison for manslaughter. In a recent interview, Michael was asked what his greatest achievements were. He said “I’d have to say my greatest achievement (so far) was to create an environment where the ‘misfits’ could feel comfortable, be in charge.” Michael himself had always felt “different”, like he didn’t fit in. So he created a community where he could fit in, and everyone else who felt like him could join in that sense of “belonging”. Sadly, this group of party goers did not fulfill his desire to fit in. At one point in the movie, he says he just wants to be loved. Is that what community is about, being loved? If so, why do we feel this need to be loved, and what does it say about us as people?

Last night, I watched another movie, “The Motorcycle Diaries”, which describes a trip that the young Che Guevara took through Latin America. One of the most powerful symbols in the movie is that of the leper colony. This colony exists on two sides of the Amazon River. The south side is where the lepers live, and the north side is where the doctors, nurses and support staff live. And between them is the vast expanse of the river, cutting the group into two very distinct communities: that of the outcasts, and that of the accepted. But Che wants to be a part of both communities at the same time. Clearly, the only way to do this is to get rid of the river, something he tries to do for the rest of his life. For Che, it was not good enough for the misfits and outcasts to have their own community, because then each community missed out on the joy of the others.

Today, I finished Louis Sachar’s excellent children’s book “Holes”. In it, we learn of a group of children at a juvenile prison. It seems that here, everyone is a misfit (and not just the prisoners, either). And yet, despite everyone being a “bad kid”, racial tensions, varying education levels and a lot of bad luck, the prisoners find community with eachother. They build this community on nicknames, shared secrets, and shared misery. It is clear that one of the strong messages of the book is that finding community is possible, and important.

So, is it coincidence that I have so often encountered community in the past week? On the other hand, perhaps I am only perceiving this emphasis on community, because I feel as if I’m not a part of one, and I don’t know where my community should be. While I can’t completely discredit that possibility, there still seems to be a great desire from a myriad of people to have community. In fact, I would venture to say that almost everyone wants to be accepted, to be loved, and to truly be part of a group of people. So why is it that on Tuesday night, when I had dinner with a bunch of other people that were very similar to me, that the awkwardness was almost palpable? Why was there so much silence, quick, uncertain glances, and staring at one’s dinner plate. The discomfort at being around new people was so apparent that it was almost comical. But if we all want community so badly, why was it that we weren’t leaping at the chance to form it?

I think it comes down to being hurt. I would be very surprised if there were a single person in that room who had not, at some time, reached out to someone and been rejected. Each person is so cautious and unsure, because she remembers a time when she was bolder, and was burned for it. As evidence (besides my own introspective observations), I offer a group of children. If we at dinner had all been three years old, I wonder how long it would have taken for us to be laughing and playing together. Likely not long. The innocence of children allows them to reach out with abandon. You know, maybe that’s what the teacher meant when he said that we need to be like children. Some say that God’s kingdom is not restricted to heaven, but can exist here on Earth too, within communities. And maybe a childlike openess is what we need to create that.