Community surrounds us at all times. But how often do we, in the technical world, turn to our IRL communities and find the humanity we need? I ask this question because prior to returning to school and finding my own belonging in a contemplative academic/spiritual community that gathers during the school year in person, I was at a loss for a solid IRL community.
For years, I’ve traveled in and out of IRL communities as a digital nomad. I float into a third place, usually a coffee shop or the town tavern, and simply sit amongst vibrant communities that are not my own. The sense of grounding I find in our shared humanity gives me both a gauge on the area I’m visiting but, more importantly, a sense of belonging to the larger collective. Choosing to stay in perpetual motion does necessitate a need to plug into our collective human experience on a regular basis so loneliness and alienation don’t set in.
I graduated college a few weeks ago and my IRL community dispersed for the summer. Since I technically have no classes to return to, I may be a woman in search of a new community soon. I decided to try to return to my pre-pandemic nomadic tendencies and do a trial run for a few weeks to see if this lifestyle still resonates.
Spoiler alert-- it does not.
For a multitude of reasons, I seem to have moved beyond my digital nomadic roots of the past 15 years or so. Beyond the surface-level reasons of no longer connecting with the nomadic lifestyle, I believe one of the biggest underlying factors of discontent is a lack of community. After experiencing the power and beauty of an IRL community grounded in spirituality, the absence of such a gathering leaves a gaping hole in my being.
As a community professional, someone whose job is to literally build communities to move missions forward in virtual spaces, I am always looking to better understand, observe, and experience communities whenever and wherever I can. In my past career as a photojournalist, I would often wander into the third places of a town to find stories and better understand the people I was documenting. Such community is often found in coffee shops, dive bars, diners, cafes, moose lodges, and VFWs.
Since the political polarization of this country in the past decade or so and the pandemic, I have spent almost no time in the places where opposing political views dwell. I tried. Often. My favorite dive bar in a rural Arizona town I call my winter home, which I have frequented for over 15 years (their pizza is shockingly amazing) and even worked at on occasion was a place I could sit amongst a cornucopia of differing political opinions and still find connection. I could catch a glimpse of where such opinions surface and better understand the humanity of the people I share a town with during the winter months.
During the previous administration, I lost the ability to sit in community with those from opposing perspectives. I would sit at the bar, order dinner and try to stay present without judgement, but every television was turned to Fox news and every patron sitting near me would begin regurgitating the fever transmitting from the Murdoch machine of disinformation. To the extent that I did not feel wanted or safe as a woman in such a setting. And that broke my heart a bit. As a bartender of many years and a documentarian, I strive to look past the political leanings of everyone I meet and connect through our common humanity.
One of the biggest tragedies of weaponized algorithms in the hands of corporations and politicians, is the chasms created between our fellow humans and the deep divide that prevents us from seeing one another’s humanity. How do we protect our neighbors and communities through the mechanisms of local-level democracy if we no longer view our neighbors as humans, but rather the “other” set on destroying our sense of individuality and ability to prosper? Political machines have weaponized the creation and delivery of information to keep us all divided so they can wield power from a place of fear. A glance through history shows us that once a population no longer sees the humanity in their neighbors, the easier they are to control completely and keep power concentrated in unhealthy ways to support agendas that do not benefit the greater good. And that situation usually ends in the genocide and war.
This weekend I traveled to a rural town in Washington state with old friends to find some reprieve from a very intense few months. As soon as we drove into this town, I could feel a sense of relief. I could hear nature. I could feel peace. And I could see simplicity. I knew this was a town grounded in rural conservatism, which I am more than used to navigating. I could also see the threads of progressive beliefs woven throughout the town. And I was curious to crawl underneath those threads and see if the community itself had a sense of cohesion or separation.
I went with my friend to a small doggie birthday party with her friends from the local Eagles Lodge. This is a small mining town and the lodges are where people gather to form families outside of their home. Even the town cemetery has a section for the Eagles members-- past and future. In a room of lovely humans and adorably dressed dogs, I saw a thread of their community and understood a bit more how it all worked. Conservative, progressive, and LGBTQ folks all gathered together to celebrate their dogs and told stories about their lodge. And it all worked. And no one spoke of politics.
We wandered down to the lodge later that afternoon and as I entered, I felt that familiar sense of community tied together through cheap alcohol and hilarious bar games. The lodge was filled with history and humans. It had its token alcoholics and old bar flies drinking $3 well whiskeys and eating boats of popcorn. I could see the fingerprints of polarizing political sentiments on their clothing, badges of political identity displayed to convey their beliefs. But not a word was uttered about their actual politics. No television transmitted those polarizing talking points and no one acted poorly towards those who were clearly of a different belief system.
The evening entertainment showed up, a young Asian man with a karaoke business and a large sign that reads “Have fun and Be kind” and he proceeded to begin singing on stage and warming up the crowd. Then a series of large white men walked onto this young man’s stage and sang every possible Johnny Cash and John Denver song they could find. And we all sang along.
I was draped in my yoga scarf, also wearing my spiritual identity as both a shield and a quiet indicator of my belief system. As John Denver’s song about West Virginia came on and I sang along with the bar, a man at the table leaned over and asked if I’d ever visited the state. I looked at him and said, “my father’s family were coal miners and moonshiners from West Virginia. My mother is Filipino. It caused quite the scandal in my dad’s family.” They smiled and nodded. I don’t think they expected a yogi from Boulder to come from the roots of mining country. Again, our common humanity made a connection through community.
I tell this story to implore us all, myself included, to find community cross-sections where we can create a common ground with those who harbor different and opposing beliefs. I spoke with the lodge manager about this, and we touched on a topic we speak of often at JournoDAO. In the absence of local journalists who can attend town hall meetings and school board council votes, we’ve lost the ability to logically see all perspectives of a community. When you connect with another person and commune with them on a regular basis in a way where your collective humanity can just exist, it is very hard to embrace the hate and polarization the mass media deploys to achieve political agendas.
When we are able to find community and break bread (or booze) with one another, we no longer see someone as the “other”. We simply see them as Bob, who is a little jaded in his beliefs because his trauma is deep and unaddressed. We can then hold compassion for the “Bobs” of the world and understand why we need to fund mental health services in our communities and vote for policies to help the Bobs find a sliver of peace. Or we can look at Sarah and see how deeply she loves Linda and how their love is something we should protect and preserve with our voting power because their ability to love one another is an example of the best aspects of our collective human experience.
When we can place a face to a political talking point and have compassion for the actual human wrestling with the impacts of an issue, we can negate the weaponization of that talking point designed to polarize us. It is next to impossible to look your neighbor in the eye if you’ve voted against their right to the pursuit of love, liberty and happiness. As we navigate these chaotic and uncertain times, we must venture back into our IRL community gathering locations and find a way to connect with the “other” once more, so we can remove that distinction altogether and simply become “one” again.