One of more recognizable suffixes in old Norse terminology is ‘-heim.’ or ‘heimr.’ It indicates, roughly, a ‘land of’ whatever comes before that suffix. So, Vanaheim is the land of the Vanir, Jotunheimr is the land of the Jotnar, Svartálfaheimr is the land of the Black Elves, or Svartálfar.
My sweetheart told me that one of the Heathen lecturers he follows on YouTube refers to the internet as Trollheim, and I about laughed my face off.
That lecturer is right, you see. Our online world is an incredible resource – there’s a lot of good information, access to materials we might otherwise only find with great difficulty, and wonderful tools for supporting community. There’s also…the rest of it. Our online communities are frequently fraught with teapot tempests that would never even come to a simmer if the participants in the rolling boil were speaking to each other in person. We see the absolute worst of people when we spend the bulk of our interaction with them through various media. There have been thousands of op-eds and a handful of studies exploring this – you don’t need me to tell you online conduct is a problem.
The thing is, we need community. Humans are communal, tribal creatures – we’re like the rest of our simian brethren. We thrive off family-like connections. Along with the studies exploring the downsides of online interaction are a number of studies pointing to our increasing isolation, and the negative impact chronic loneliness takes on its victims.
I am a community organizer, and I have been one for the better part of two decades now. For some reason, I have a compulsion deep within my soul to find those of like mind and form bonds with them around our shared passions. Many years ago, one of my students referred to my behavior as ‘building families,’ and asked how many families I had. I had to think for a few minutes to come up with a firm answer because I was part of so many communities.
As part of my Commissioned Lay Ministry training through the Unitarian Universalist Association, I’ve been reading a lot of UU and otherwise progressive theological literature. One of the books I recently finished helped me finally put my finger on why I have a compulsion toward community.
“Hope rises. It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow. Hope longs. It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace. Hope remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death. Hope acts – to bless, to protest, and to repair. Hope can be disappointed, especially when it is individual rather than shared, or when – even as shared aspiration – it encounters entrenched opposition. To thrive, hope requires a home, a sustaining structure of community, meaning, and ritual. Only with such a habitation can hope manifest the spiritual stamina it needs to confront evil, endure through trouble, and “hold fast to that which is good.'” – A House for Hope – The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century
I build community because some deep part of my lizard brain understands that hope, the most precious yet fragile of the trinity of Faith, Hope and Love, needs the company of others in order to survive. When we have lost our own light or seen it grow dim, it is interaction with our friends, families and spiritual or intellectual kin that causes the illumination to return.
As wonderful as our online world can be, it is no substitute for in-person interaction. It can be used to effectively support a community, but it does not build the same “spiritual stamina” – the same resilience to despair. And there is so very much despair right now – it hangs in the air, in the constant barrage of information flowing toward us. It sounds in the voices of our coworkers, our daily interactions with the humans we pass by, even in the voices of our relatives. The miasma has reached levels that can be crushing to the fragile stem that bears hope within our souls.
So, how do you find in-person community? How do you protect that flicker of hope within your heart?
Start with what you love.
What do you enjoy? Are you a reader, a knitter, a hiker, a movie aficionado? There are clubs and gatherings for interests all over the place. Seek them out – join the quilting circle, the stream cleanup group, the poetry slam, the Tom Hiddleston Appreciation Society nearest you.
Spend time, in person, with people you do not know yet, but with whom you share an interest. It won’t always be easy, especially if you’ve become isolated. People are divinely messy, beautifully flawed creatures. They will try your patience at times. You will find folks you don’t like. You will also find your heart filling with new connections, ideas and ways of approaching life that you would never have come to on your own.
After you find what you love, join the team. The strongest bonds of community and friendship are forged by pursuing a goal with others. Help the people in your interest group who are building a dream – maybe it’s a showing of everyone’s art, hosting an event, establishing Little Free Libraries, or just picking up litter. Help carry the water, and the water will ultimately carry you in return.
What if there’s nothing near you?
Oh, my beloved friend, that is where you are needed most. Set the light yourself. Be the first ‘Underwater Basket Weaving to Brahms’ club in your area. Meet at the library, at a coffee shop, at a mall or community center. Use the internet to help you find a place and get the word out, but then build the dream in person.
And the best part? If you seek out and foster Humanheim, you care less and less about Trollheim. I rarely engage in the online mudfights – I’m too busy setting lights and forging friendships.
Go find your people. They’re out there, and they are just as lonely. They are waiting for you to set a light where they can see it. Help me carry these candles – right now, there are not enough of us to go around.
And if you find you need to bounce ideas off of someone when it comes to community building, drop me a line. I’m always happy to listen.