You and I have been crafted by God Himself for community. He even said it in the book of Genesis when He looked at Adam. “This guy does not need to be alone – he needs someone to walk the road of life with him.” (paraphrase mine).
But somewhere along the line, we got the idea that self-sufficiency should be our goal, that independence is something to be lauded, and that we should never let anyone know about our secret fears or unspoken needs.
“You’ve got to look out for #1” and “Never let ‘em see you sweat” became the mantras of my 20s as I worked hard to prove myself as a competent leader of people and things – and life. Oh, I had my social circles, and I believed that God was cheering for me to succeed. But the idea of being dependent on anyone or anything was out of the question. Even scriptures like “I can do ALL things through Christ who gives me strength.” focused more on the ‘I can do ALL things.”
The fierce, “pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps, it will be easier if I just do this myself, I don’t want to be a burden” mindset was nurtured in me for the longest time by a mom and a fiery older cousin who wanted to make sure I could take care of myself. I learned to cook at a young age, got my first job at 12, and was taught to drive a car at 13. Both of the women in my life were hell-bent on me being able to get from here to there without ever having to ask for help.
That “I can do ALL things,” bootstrapping attitude became a cautionary tale for me, and if I could talk to my 20-something self, I would warn her of the dangers of the independence she thought was so essential to her wellbeing – independence that was actually isolation in disguise.
It took about two decades of the “I can” attitude to catch up with me. I sat in a doctor’s office, concerned about consistent stomach pain and difficulties with sleep. He asked, “How’s your life right now?”
I sat up straight, crossed my legs, and replied confidently, “It’s great. Life is great. I’m great. Things are going well – normal stresses but nothing I can’t handle. It’s all good.”
He then proceeded to ask me a series of questions about that life – and how I responded to it. An assessment followed, with a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
My years of being self-sufficient had taken a toll on my health and my heart.
Read this excerpt from a New York Times article on the dangers of isolation:
A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age. (“How Social Isolation is Killing Us,” 12/22/16)
It’s taken years, a lot of stumbling, and several good-sized portions of humble pie for me to understand the healing power of community. It’s taken gut-level, battle-weary, scuffed knees prayer for me to stop telling God, “I’ve got this – take Your tender attentiveness and give it to someone who’s really struggling.” I am incredibly thankful for His faithfulness, and for Him just smiling when I give Him a nod and point to someone I think might need Him more than me.
For me, community now looks like a number of things. First, it looks like me taking time daily to get quiet, get prayerful, and get honest with God about things. At work, it looks like embracing the wisdom of others and inviting that wisdom into my life. It looks like leading with integrity – and being honest about not having all the answers. Personally, it looks like being vulnerable with those who help me stay focused and faithful. And it’s engaging online with larger groups of folks who share common interests – and deal with common fears and needs.
Together, we gain strength. Together, we are better.
Hopefully you’ll never have to step foot in a doctor’s office to face the dangers of isolation masked as independence. Instead, cultivate community by doing these two things:
Get honest with God about your fears, dreams, desires, frustrations, outlandish wishes and practical thoughts. Talk to him the same way you’d talk to a friend. That’s what prayer is – a great conversation with a God who delights in you. Then, allow Him to participate in your days – at work, at home, with friends and family, and alone.
Invite people into your life. Find a few trusted folks who will hold you accountable and hold you close in prayer and in encouragement. Connect with groups that share an affinity for your vocation, hobby, side hustle, or big dream. Welcome people into your life who are further along than you on the journey, and put an arm around someone who could use your road-tested wisdom.