In her December 2016 Legacy Tips & Tools, Rachael Freed wrote about the importance of being in community in today’s world. We truly need our friends, our communities, to help us make sense of a world that seems to be in crisis. I think she was right on target, and it made me think about the important role of community in our Sage-ing work.
In 2011, Sage-ing International (SI) adopted what we call the three-legged stool of learning, community and service to describe the focal areas for our activities. In our Sage-ing work, community is best represented by our Wisdom Circles, where elders meet regularly to share food, ideas and social connections. SI currently has about 50 Wisdom Circles around the world, with different meeting styles and few fixed guidelines. But what these groups have in common is the focus on bringing people together in a supportive community.
One could make a case that the other two legs of our three-legged stool also involve and encourage community. Certainly, learning is an opportunity for sharing thoughts and ideas and wisdom with other persons. When a group of elders establishes a Sage-ing Chapter, with the purpose of making learning opportunities available they are also creating and encouraging community. And when a person or a group becomes involved in service to others they are participating in community, both through connections with the persons they serve and through connections with others doing service.
Does being in community make a measurable difference to our health and happiness? I can give personal testimony to the many elders who have been involved in Wisdom Circles or other relatesd groups in New Mexico who say these groups have made their lives more joyful, and in some cases have “saved my life.”
Research studies have clearly identified some of the health benefits of our communities, be they with family or friends. According to a publication of the Harvard Medical School, there are many studies that show “people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.”
On the other hand, “having fewer social connections may be correlated with depression, cognitive decline and increased mortality.” So it’s not only that being in community is good for you, but that not being in community is likewise bad for you.
What benefits does being in community bring to you? Generally, a community gives you a place to share and explore your thoughts, ideas and values with others. It provides a safe space when the world around you may seem uncertain or frightening or confusing. A community can also help you to safely share feelings of love and caring and can provide an outlet for compassionate connections with others. Being in community gives you a chance to tell your story, your truth, and to listen to others’ stories. What can be better than having sympathetic ears when you’re relating your most heart-felt feelings?
Where can you find community? Many of us are lucky enough to share our lives with another person or persons. I have lived with Charlotte, my wife, for 36 years, and I could not ask for a better friend and companion in life. But we both realize that we can’t rely only on each other for the broader sense of community we wish to have in our lives. So we have consciously sought out other like-minded persons and groups to connect with. I meet regularly with my men’s support group, and Charlotte has her women’s support group. I spend time working with and for my Sage-ing communities, both local (Conscious Aging Network of New Mexico) and national (Sage-ing International). Charlotte meets regularly with two Buddhist groups with which she shares beliefs. She also goes to lunch with several of her close friends on a regular basis.
Together, Charlotte and I meet periodically with a movie group that we helped to form; with members of our intentional living community (eight families that bought and developed land together over 30 years ago); with our UU church community; with two couple’s discussion groups; and with a Wisdom Circle that we formed four years ago at our church. These different groups create a rich life for us!
Communities of caring can also become important when we face the inevitable down turns in our lives, be they personal, professional, financial or health-related. Likewise, we can help provide a caring connection for others in our circles of friends and communities when they are in need. At its best, community goes both ways, and both ways serve us, as we always receive when we give.
My communities are an integral part of my life, and a large part of why life feels so rich and joyful to me during these elder years. I wish you success in finding communities that will support you in your life’s journey. In my view, a supportive, caring and engaged community is more precious than gold!