My daughter goes to Hebrew school, and one Friday evening, she participated in a ceremony where the students were given a prayer book. Parents were encouraged to come to the service and watch. I hadn’t been going to Friday evening services because I was often exhausted at the end of a full workweek and chose to take the Friday evening time to cook a meal for my family, giving us the space to gather and reconnect.
I usually cooked alone and thought I was just too wiped out to “socialize.” This time, however, I knew it was important for my daughter that I be there, and I was looking forward to the meditative space that Friday evening services and prayer can provide. None of my close friends were there; nonetheless, the room in the synagogue was full of people I knew and had fond feelings for.
Everyone shared in prayer and food. When I went home that evening, I felt filled up in many ways. Had I stayed home and cooked alone, I would have missed the opportunity to tap into the power of this nourishing community. As my rabbi once said, “Some people come to services to connect to G-d, and others come to connect with Martin, Josie, or Rachel. They are both great reasons to come!”
I experienced the power of both prayer and community, and being in a synagogue set the tone for my weekend. I felt supported, safe, and celebrated. This is the gift of community. I admit that when I complete my work and parenting responsibilities, it can feel like there is a lack of bandwidth for the community. This has been an ongoing struggle for me as I recognize the value of these relationships, yet it feels like I have little time and energy to invest.
It’s hard enough to find time for my nearest and dearest, let alone the next layer of people who, while beautiful in many ways, are more peripheral in my life. Since that evening when my daughter got her prayer book, I recognize that making meaningful space for this type of connection fills me up rather than exhausts me.
Leaving my phone in the car and connecting with people and a higher power is worth the push and is exponentially more important than my email, to-do list, or errands. I have seen through the years the power of community in times of struggle, as exhibited by the many meal trains I have been a part of for friends who are navigating treatment for cancer or a tough divorce.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the community celebrates us throughout the milestones and accomplishments in our lives, which feels great. When my husband and I were considering eloping for our wedding, a wise friend said, “Don’t underestimate the power of your friends and family to celebrate this decision and launch you into the next chapter of life.
When your community celebrates your decision to marry, they push you forward into this commitment, cultivating a feeling of momentum which is supportive when times are hard or fear sets in.” I thought this was so interesting, and it influenced my decision to have a wedding and include the people whose support and blessings seemed valuable to have.
Plugging into the community is the opposite of how many people engage today—or, better put, don’t engage today. Children in the next generation are losing the ability to read facial expressions and body language because they don’t look people in the eye when they’re talking. A social-emotional developmental shift is happening.
Being in a community reminds us how, in our often individualistic society, we are connected to the whole. When we connect to the community, we cultivate more compassion, we give more, and we certainly receive more. We enter the cycle of life in a fuller way.
Making space for those in need, whether that’s delivering a meal to an ill friend or volunteering to mentor a child, brings the cycle of giving and receiving into balance. We tap into compassion and gratitude, and activating those emotions not only makes us feel good, but it also changes the plasticity of our brains. Research indicates that volunteering provides both social and health benefits to volunteers.
Those who give their time to people in need have lower mortality rates, have lower rates of depression, and function at a higher level later in life than those who do not volunteer. There is a phenomenon called a “helper’s high,” and volunteers have more trust in others and greater social and political participation.
Sign me up! I volunteer at my children’s school when I can because I like to connect with the teachers, children, and other parent volunteers; helping them feels nourishing to me, so I carve out the time as often as possible. When I get the email about a meal train for a mother in the neighborhood who’s going through chemotherapy, I admit my first thought maybe, I feel so bad that they are going through this, but I have no time.
I can barely feed my own family, let alone someone else’s family. But that thought is quickly followed by the moment of clarity: I think, I have to bring dinner to this family because I truly do care, and because I’m a responsible member of the community. It’s not all about me, and someday there may be a meal train for me. Remember, actions come before feelings.
We care about things we invest time and energy in; how we care about our children is a great example of this, and sometimes we have to first invest the time and energy to build the feeling of caring. Engaging in service cultivates feelings of compassion and connectedness, which then drive us to repeat the behavior. At the end of the day, the community creates the feeling of abundance from which true inner wealth springs forth.
Many of our clients, despite being surrounded by people, suffer in loneliness. They lack and crave more authentic, the intimate connection in their lives. When a person has a lot of money and can pay for hired help for most things they need, the cycle of giving and receiving can sometimes be interrupted.
They miss the interdependence between members of the community, such as needing to rely on and get support from other moms with driving and childcare, or the opportunity to borrow or lend eggs from a neighbor because sometimes getting to the supermarket is just too much. Community and service meet when someone needs a ride to a doctor’s appointment or jumper cables for a dead car battery.
In terms of service, when money is not an issue, it can be easy to write a check instead of showing up and giving time. Don’t get me wrong—the donations are extremely important, but serving with our hands, hearts, and minds is a fulfilling practice that leads to a connection with the understanding that the world is bigger than we are. When life is only about us, we miss out on the opportunity to experience the web of community and service, and loneliness ensues.
Ethan Nichtern, a Buddhist teacher and writer who I have known for several decades, talks about the importance of interdependence. As a species, we are all interdependent and interconnected. When we can tap into the sense of interdependence and interconnectedness, it has the potential to manifest feelings of compassion. In my experience, this social awareness leads us to compassion.
Many of our clients, because of their position and wealth, sit on the boards of schools or nonprofit organizations. One client told me that she wanted to engage in a more direct way than simply writing a check because she felt out of alignment with the recognition she received without having made any sacrifice in the spirit of service. In our conversation, I suggested that she volunteer at the school instead of, or in addition to, raising money by inviting her friends to a table at the fundraising gala.
Through her volunteer work with the students, she discovered that the school lacked an adequate art space and what she considered to be adequate creative resources, something she would never have learned by simply giving money. Her family donated funds to build an art center for the school, donating far more than they normally would have. Her hands-on engagement gave her a greater sense of fulfillment.
She also chose to resign from several boards that were draining her energy, so she could have more time to focus on those that were most meaningful to her. She decided that going deeper with her service felt more nourishing than going wide, so to speak. The commonalities we share as humans—our love for our children, our desire for health, well-being, security, and abundance—are far greater than our differences.
When we connect with people in service, we experience the common threads within humanity. Service creates wellness on a macro level, contributing to the wellness of the world. We’re inextricably connected to the macro, and when we make the world around us better, we are better able to be healthier ourselves.
Community is the web of interdependence in which we lose our self-absorption and can experience ourselves as part of the whole instead of the whole. Community efforts allow us to express shared values in action, whether it’s a PTO event or service with others. The fourth pillar of touch, which we’ll explore next, is where we express ourselves through a physical connection and intimate relationship. It’s where we see and are seen by other individuals.