Brick by Brick: Thoughts on Building Community
If you’d asked me two years ago about finding community, I wouldn’t have had an answer for you.
To me, ‘community’ was a buzz word you used to tempt people into moving to a retirement home.
To know my story is to know that I used to be part of friendship groups with girls who didn’t have each other’s best interests at heart. I thought that the type of people who had your back during the highs and lows of life, only existed within the pages of books and on the screens of sitcoms. I remember laying on a friend’s couch one night watching Carrie Bradshaw rotate through men and shoes and handbags. But never her friends. “Do people really stay so close for that long?” I asked my friend. “Nope,” she said while stuffing more chips in her mouth. “Only in movies.”
Worn out by disingenuous motives and people that chipped away at my self-esteem, I clung onto wounds from the past and built walls to barricade others from getting too close to me. At a housewarming, while some were huddled together having intimate conversations, I stuck close to the booming music and ducked out of conversations that threatened to go beyond “how are you?” Although I craved a deeper connection, I didn’t have the energy to open myself up to others only to be disappointed again. After all, what what the point of meeting him, or her, or anyone, if they were just going to ditch when the going got tough.
Sometimes, I wish the lessons we needed to learn came in the form of handwritten letters tucked inside envelopes, titled Lesson 0.15: How to Make Friends That Last. It would come every month alongside our phone bill, and we’d all be inspired to be better humans. I’m still negotiating with God over this.
My lesson came in the form of a misunderstanding, severe lack of communication, and people who were desperate to avoid discomfort. It came in the form of hitting rock bottom, a divine intervention, and then, finally, a clean slate.
Someone I now call a true friend, dragged me through the doors of a place that promised love, welcoming, and belonging. But I still clung onto my old attitude like an old, worn out cardigan with shrunken sleeves that I couldn’t bear to throw away. Week after week, I would sit on the sidelines as a blurred face in the crowd, make brief small talk with the people next to me, and then speed home straight after the event.
If God were to write me a letter, I imagine mine would read something like this:
Girl, throw out the damn cardigan.
It’s easy to wait for people to approach you first and get salty when they fail to notice you. It’s easy to stick to superficial conversations and wonder why nobody knows who you really are. It takes a certain type of boldness to step out of the boat and go deeper with a few.
His lesson is clear. If I really wanted something different- if I wanted to feel seen and known and loved by a group of genuine people I could one day call community, I’d have to be the first to suck it up and do the heavy lifting.
I know nothing about building houses, carpentry or cementing. I once convinced myself I could build a life with a tradie, only to quickly realise that was not my destiny. But I imagine any type of building starts off small, with the repetitive laying down of one brick after another until you’ve constructed yourself a solid, sturdy house.
Building a community from the ground up is the same. You roll up your sleeves and lay out the groundwork by asking people out with the intention of doing life with them. Most people will eagerly accept. Others just happen to lead busier lives. There are no guarantees the work will be easy. Not everyone will be as welcoming as you hope. But often, difficult people are placed in our lives to help us appreciate the ones who are warm and make you feel included.
If a deeper connection is what you’re craving, then you’re going to have to be the first to show some skin. When the obligatory small talk is over, dive for the deeper stuff. Ask “how are you” and then say “No, really. How are you?” when they give you a vague, generic answer. Be open and honest about the fact that you don’t have your life together, and provide a no-judgement zone when others tell you the same. In a world where everyone is desperate to show off the highlights, your vulnerability is refreshing and invites the other person to open up about their secret struggle too. Someone once told me they felt safe confiding in me about their burdens and I nearly cried. In its simplest form, I think that’s what community is: a group of imperfect humans providing a safe space to share about their imperfect lives.
Done well, your tribe will be made up of cheerleaders, world-shakers and shoulders to cry on. It’ll involve people who let you share difficult truths over pancakes and maple syrup, and friends who write you love letters when you’re feeling unlovable. It’s 2 am calls when anxiety is keeping one of you awake and driving for 50 minutes to their home because somebody has to put in the effort. Your community will be made up of people who bake the cakes and buy the flowers. Some will cook you dinners after you give them lifts, and others will open up their couch to you after a hard day. Ever brick you’ve ever stacked in love will come together to build you up. They’ll show up for you, and you’ll show up for them.
I thought about all this recently when a friend told me about life at her new church. “I’m pretty sure only about two people like me there,” she said in a passing comment.
After I got in my car, I wish I’d told her that it takes time. That nothing worthwhile was ever created by just showing up once. Whatever you seek to build will require commitment and a promise that you’ll keep working at it. To neglect this process would lead to a flimsy shelter that would barely survive a drizzle of rain, let alone the storms of life.
Community isn’t built in a day. It’s showing up when things are messy. It’s the first to be vulnerable and the extending of an invitation. It’s shaking off your perfect facade and getting knee deep in the muddy trenches with one another. It’s tears, being honest, having fights and making up. It’s a combination of hello’s, goodbye’s and I’ll see you soon’s.
Community is not sitting on the sidelines with a wish to be picked. It’s stepping up to the plate, putting skin in the game and saying, ‘hey you, there’s no guarantee this will work, but I want to try this friendship thing anyway.’ Its picking up and laying down one brick after the other in the form of coffee dates, house visits, and showing up for people till you’ve built a solid fortress that will be there to pick you up when life gets heavy.
I don’t know where you are today. Maybe you’ve finally found yourself a solid tribe or maybe you’re picking up the pieces of a broken one and wondering if you have the energy to start all over again. If you’ve ever needed a letter to show up for you, let this be it:
Life isn’t meant to be done alone.
You’ll find your people.
Commit to the long haul.
Show up for one another.
Stack the bricks.