We are becoming increasingly aware that in our busy, agitated world, disconnection from the people around us is an epidemic that hurts our well-being on all levels. Social isolation is now linked with chronic disease. Wellness Editor Dr. Karen Ho spoke with celebrated poet, writer and philosopher Mark Nepo about the critical need for community-building, and its deeper roots and significance in our world today.
Parvati Magazine: What is community, and why is it so important?
Mark Nepo: The word community derives from the Latin, commun, meaning “common.” The same root informs the word communicate (to share our understanding, to have understanding in common) and communion (to share our experience, to have experience in common). It’s also not by chance that the word community contains unity. So, community is the history of how we help each other live. All things are connected. The art of community is discovering how. In this way, community becomes the art and science of understanding and engaging the life-force that moves through everything.
Our capacity to join and complete each other is literally in our DNA. In studying people as well as animals, scientists have found that intimacy promotes health while isolation fosters stress, disease, and early death. Led by University of Michigan sociologist James S. House, researchers concluded that social isolation is statistically just as dangerous as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, or lack of exercise. A strong, respectful social network fosters a healthy sense of belonging. A community with a close-knit web of connections has a lower rate of heart disease. This is called the Roseto effect.
Carl Jung believed that the inner work of individuation informs healthy community building. When individuated and transformed, we’re more capable of true relationship. The more congruent we are individually, the healthier our connections with others.
The aspen grove is a great metaphor for the life of community. Though each aspen appears as an individual tree aboveground, they all share the same root system. In this way, aspens are one of the largest living organisms on Earth. And what happens to one tree happens to all the trees, for underground they are all connected. Their health depends on each other. Thus, on many levels, community is crucial for health and societal wellbeing.
PMAG: You have spent fourteen years researching and putting together your book “More Together than Alone”. What was the impetus?
MN: Thirty-one years ago, I almost died from cancer. That raw and vulnerable journey tossed me into an urgent community of loved ones and kind strangers. Without their care, I wouldn’t be here. I experienced the power and spirit of community then in a felt way. It was ten years later that I began to wonder about the lineage of human beings working well together. And so, I began to collect stories, both contemporary and historical, searching for the lessons in them that we can rely on today.
One of the profound, recurring themes from all cultures throughout history is that while fear makes us think that self-interest will protect us, love and suffering affirm that we are more together than alone.
PMAG: Crisis often pushes us towards a more acute sense of, or at least the need for community. Why do you think we forget this in times of relative peace?
MN: The developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, has defined centrism as our capacity to take what is familiar as true. The problem with this is that we then assume that what is not familiar is false. And so, we grow fearful and reject anything new. From this stance, we can’t grow. Often, crisis breaks up our assumptions and conclusions and we can learn again. So, we must guard against mistaking what is familiar as true, and accept that we need more than what we know to survive.
PMAG: I come away with a sense that this book is calling for reflection on how we individually and collectively, choose to foster love, togetherness, interconnection, rather than division.
MN: We live in a time, globally, when people have stopped listening to each other, when fear keeps escalating into violence. It’s easy to perpetuate this violence and isolation, and to believe that life is disjointed and that people are cold and barbaric. We as a nation have moved between periods of isolationism and inclusion as people shift between the two tribes. Today, our nation has retreated into these primary camps and we seem to be heading into another period of isolationism and fear of those who are different.
But I remain convinced that there is a living lineage of human kindness and cooperation, which needs to remembered and uplifted. Each story in this book models courage and care. Each story holds lessons for us to use today. My hope is that the stories of community in this book will help us accept and inhabit the spiritual fact that we need each other more than ever.
Mark Nepo inspired audiences worldwide with his #1 New York Times bestseller “The Book of Awakening”. Mark devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. His latest book is “More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World”. For more information: ThreeIntentions.com. Enjoy some of Mark’s poetry in our 2016 article here.