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Community is not your savior
To hear of community in 2022 is to hear whispers of Valhalla. Whether it’s Tim Ferris breaking the fourth wall as he addresses “you, my dear listeners” or the Spotify ad which encourages you to “find your soul,” everyone wants to be in the right community. Startup entrepreneurs dream of building communities. Bowling Alone taught us that if we could find the connections of community again, all would be well in America. If we can only bring back community halls, increase membership in the church or the mosque, or create town squares, we’d solve the loneliness epidemic. We’d be happy. Even more than happy, we’d be fulfilled.
For years, I was a true believer in the prophecy of community. Today I know community won’t save you, just like it didn’t save me. Community can serve us, but we must save ourselves.
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I desperately searched for community to define me
Growing up in suburban America in the 1980s, I was quartered between worlds. Too young to own MTV’s VJ revolution and too old to be a digital native, I instead searched for my story in the only groups who hadn’t sold out or settled. I found solace in the early 90s skateboard community, a group identity of not fitting in. Idols like Tony Hawk, Bam Margera, and Bucky Lasek showed us the outsiders’ pride of having a community who at least looked and talked like us, even if we couldn’t define “us” beyond the four wheels under our Vans.
In the years since, I moved from an outsider to the inside. I embraced the indoctrination the Navy offered me. New ways to think and act. Suddenly “us” was more than a solo rebellion. It was the select group of men and women who heeded the call of our country. We even had our own cool nod when we passed each other on the streets.
Since those years, I’ve come into my own professionally. I was embraced in the pinnacle of achievement and intellectual stimulation. I had made it in Silicon Valley, the elite of the tech community which was reshaping the American dream. I was part of the community of startups, funded by the largest names in Venture Capital and invited into the vaults of the most exclusive clubs.
And I was lost.
I should have been fulfilled. Instead, I felt empty. I wandered the streets of San Francisco, alone amid throngs of thousands. I sat in conference rooms, alienated from people I would call friends. I wrestled with the darkest demons of my soul silently in the middle of the night.
My first attempt to pull myself out was to fall back into the veteran community. The people who already thought, talked, and looked like me would illuminate me again. Sadly, instead of helping me illuminate my darkness, the ghosts of the past refused to let me escape. I saw only what had been, and was reminded that even then, I had been an outsider. This time without the pride of rebellion.
If my past wasn’t my community, could I remake myself to find my future? Maybe I could again let a community define my ideals, even as those ideals blurred the old line between insider and outsider. I just needed a bolder community. I needed to surround myself with founders, futurists, and innovators pushing the boundaries even further. I believed that tribe was out there, and they could save me more than any therapist, coach, or deep personal work. Laying awake at night, I knew that every new community was taking me further from myself. It still felt safer than what lay dormant in me.
There has to be a better way
While I suffered, I longed for the innate confidence of real idols. Nelson Mandella wasn’t searching for his community; he was bringing his oppressors and followers together for reconciliation. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu had cult-like following for their inner joy and The Book of Joy, not for the amazing communities they had convened. The whispers of those rare humans called me, even as Valhalla showed itself to be more hollow every day.
Finally, I gave up my resistance. I found a coach. I found multiple therapists. I leaned into my personal growth, development, emotional, intellectual, and mission intelligence. And when I finally stopped looking for others to define me, I found a definition that seems to fit.
Through self work, I’ve learned to love my anger, pain, fear, delight, and joy. Every one of those emotions and many more used to scare the shit out of me, and I silently begged for help from people who were just as scared as I was.
Therapy taught me to love my anger
Internal Family Systems therapy showed me how to love my anger. I saw that my anger was not who I was. It also wasn’t something I had to hide from others in order to belong. Once I recognized that anger was protecting me from feeling scared of always being an outsider, its power over me dissolved. My anger could show me what I cared about, and suddenly other people who cared about the same joined me.
Psychedelics showed me to love joy
Psychedelic-assisted therapy reminded me how to feel joy. Stripped of restraint, I saw animals and plants pushing me in a way I never could. I was supported, even as I embraced my inner weirdo. I drew, sang, wrote, laughed, and cried. It was safe, and I was free.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t need to hide my joy from others. I wasn’t afraid that by shining bright, I would hurt others. I simply had fun. My joy allowed me to be vulnerable and confident without worry. I could channel my aggression into my mountain bike, stand-up comedy, and the next wave on my surfboard. Other people found that same fun, and all my defenses dropped.
Coaching let me find myself
Coaching showed me how my internal voice separated me from people who wanted to connect. I’d been taught that I had to be perfect in order to be worthy. So I wouldn’t let anyone see the raw me. When my coach pushed me to ask others what they saw in me, I was floored. I got to read messages of respect, love, inspiration, and flow. People saw me at my best teaching others, finding simplicity in the complex, and challenging as an outsider. It took a few months, but I learned to embrace that side of me too.
Today I can be with my four-year-old’s anger when she can’t wear the outfit she wants. I can sit with my son’s desperate attempts to get the demons to stop haunting him. I can hold my wife’s pleasure at the picture she took on our vacation. In those moments and countless more, I am grounded in time, place, and love.
If it weren’t for the work, I may have never found out who I was. I would have let the next community define how I should act and what I should think. Who I should be. Because of the work, I sometimes sit, lost in wonder, at the moments of connection I attract. Those moments show me that I’m saving myself in a way no community ever could.