Part 2 – The Nuts and Bolts of Setting up Support Systems
As indicated in part 1, the story of how to transcend my habit of separateness started long before my journey with pain became centre stage. It was my deep wrestling with not finding community and my aching to feel at ‘home’ and belonging that first guided this journey.
Looking back at it, I am both humbled by the vision that sustained me for several decades, in awe with the fact that most of this journey unfolded organically but also saddened by the time it took to transform my isolation into meaningful community and connections.
It’s undeniable that the personal circumstances of my life (again see Part 1) go a long way to explain why it’s felt like such an arduous path to walk, and often confusing too. However, as I grew in clarity as to what has shaped our collective predicament across history until now, I realised that my experience was by no means unique. The millenia long movement towards uprootedness from land and community, as well as increased individualism and separation from self and each other, have left our society fractured and structurally designed for most of us living in industrialised and urban contexts to feel isolated.
How did I respond to my longing for community?
For years, I put energy in setting up or joining what could be called “communities of practice”. The ones I was drawn to included Nonviolent Communication, Parker Palmer’s “Circles of Trust”, yoga, dance, meditation, and several more. In such groups, I shared a clear purpose with others and derived much pleasure from what we were doing together. My personal and spiritual development blossomed and I made friends. However, there was a sense of us all being a bit like ‘consumers’ of the particular practice we were involved in, as distinct to active participants in a meaningful and sustained experience of community. There were two things I think could have changed that, and in particular transformed the fairly white, privileged, middle class and individualistic nature of what drew us together: first a demanding common task anchored in service, and second a container and set of structures to help our groups function well.
Another thread in this search is that over the last two decades, I have also been involved in various community projects, working alongside leaders, activists and people living at the margins. Many years ago, Alastair, my husband, and I made the choice to live in Govan, a poor neighbourhood of Glasgow, with the intention of supporting the work of the Galgael trust, whose motto is “to carve out ways of living with more humanity”. We are involved in other community projects in Glasgow and beyond. In those contexts, despite interacting with people who understand the meaning of solidarity in ways I might never do, and even if I attempted to join them in various ‘demanding common tasks’, I’ve still found it difficult to get involved wholeheartedly and find a sense of belonging. There are probably a bunch of reasons to explain this (including my own cultural make up). I won’t go into this now but it’s worth noting that being in solidarity with people who live at the margins and/or experience various forms of oppression come with certain pitfalls and is a whole journey in itself. It certainly isn’t a response to a longing for community for someone like me, unless I’ve done my own work of liberation and somewhat resolved some of the baggage that specifically comes with privilege. I hope to explore this in more depth in another blog.
The shift: mobilising in the face of vulnerability
My feelings of aloneness and isolation, and the nature of my experience in groups, started to shift a few years ago when life brought me face to face with situations of vulnerability amongst some of my friends and in my own life. The doors to experiencing belonging swang open then.
Many of us have strikingly witnessed this during this Covid pandemic, when countless community-based initiatives mobilised to support the most vulnerable in society, and those who got involved suddenly realised what it felt like to develop deep friendships rooted in solidarity.
For me, the wakeup call happened almost 4 years ago when my friend Amreeta gave birth to her baby girl and faced excruciating challenges with breastfeeding. She was part of the Biodanza group I was dancing with weekly. Realising that for various reasons she and her partner needed support, I mobilised and co-ordinated a circle of volunteers from our group. For weeks we took turns to cook and deliver meals, visit when Amreeta’s partner was out so that we could be a friendly presence, do some bits and pieces of housework, and hold the baby so Amreeta could express milk with peace of mind.
My role as coordinator was to clarify and communicate Amreeta’s needs so that we could respond effectively to the ongoing changing circumstances and also to release her from having to explain to each visitor what she needed. I also communicated with members of the group to lightly organise a schedule of who was doing what and when. My intention was to create maximum ease so that no-one extended beyond capacity and everyone knew how to support.
Unsurprisingly, our Biodanza group grew closer together as a result. We weren’t just there to dance and have fun one night a week. From then on, we knew we were also part of a group that could step up to be community for one another. It was a powerful feeling because, at least for myself, it meant I could relax and feel more at home in the group. In fact, a few months after supporting Amreeta, another member went through a time of high stress in her life. Again, a rota of volunteers came together to cook and deliver meals at her door. Someone else took on the role of coordinator. A few weeks later, our group’s leader struggled to keep up with big challenges coming her way and once again, we mobilised to support.
To me, much joy and meaning came from contributing to people’s lives and it was held within a few simple structures (such as finding a coordinator, creating a Google document to project manage and a few other things). A direct result is that we grew a culture of solidarity within our group. In turn, our sense of community deepened, our commitment to why we were there in the first place (i.e. dancing!) did too, and bounds of friendship deepened. I believe this also led us to become a warmer and more welcoming group for newcomers to Biodanza.
The next ‘in need’ turned out to be me…
I notice a slight feeling of discomfort as I come to this next part of the story. Mainly it’s because so much happened in the last few years, making this piece longer than I had expected. I am afraid to loose my readers! However, some of you, I trust, will love reading the whole story. More importantly, I want this piece to act as a ‘what-to-do’ guide to set up support systems. Details are important. I also want to honour and celebrate the creativity, perseverance and openness that went into the various ‘experiments’ that you are about to read about, whilst not underplaying the amount of work that it took to put them in place and sustain them (especially as my state of fragility span over several years).
Around September 2018, the persistent pain I had experienced for years in my feet and pelvis progressively intensified and started to severely impact my physical and emotional capacity. I became more and more anxious and preoccupied about my condition, especially as the medical world wasn’t coming up with a diagnosis. Around Christmas that year, a friend of mine fell very ill. She put in place a system consisting of speaking to someone at least once a day for as long as her illness lasted. I was a member of her circle and it gave me a template for what I set up 2-3 months later when my condition left me spiralling into more and more anxiety. Reaching out for support was critical.
This was a big jump in showing up with full vulnerability. My first “experiment in finding support in community” (as I called it) consisted of writing to a fairly large group of friends and asking if they were willing to bunch up together with the aim of taking turns for a daily chat with me for 7 weeks. A table was created for signing up. I sent regular updates, outlined how I was doing and the difference those chats made to my life. The initial email and updates are here.
I am conscious not everyone has a large group of friends they could tap into in similar circumstances. I believe I was in this fortunate situation because of my previous efforts to find community. However, I believe that something like this can be initiated with as many or as few people as possible. Also, in my experience, we often underestimate people’s willingness to help, even if we don’t know them very well. Not everyone on my list was a close friend, at least initially. The beauty of what happened is that friendships grew as a kind of byproduct.
Back to the experiment: my mind was rooted in scarcity mentality and I thought there would be a lot of holes in my schedule. However, almost all the slots got filled for the full duration of the experiment. I found this astonishing and deeply affirming. Some people committed to a slot weekly. Others were only available once or twice. Several people who received the original email said they weren’t in a position to help. It felt so good that my reaching out was heard as an invitation, not a demand. On the whole, it seems that everyone stayed in choice and within capacity. The feedback I collected at the end testifies that it was a very rich experience for many.
As the pain continued to rise and I got thrown into a place of even deeper suffering, a couple of friends from Biodanza organised a rota of visits over the summer so that I wasn’t left alone, especially when Alastair was away. Looking back at it, I feel a twinge of embarrassment at how helpless and tormented I felt at that time. I had never suffered like this in my life and discovered along the way how weak my inner strength was (including spiritually): nothing or nobody could prevent me sinking into despair and panic. Those weeks and months were horrible.
Around the same time that summer, I started to write ‘update’ emails to let a wide range of people (friends, family and colleagues) to let them know what I was going through. This spanned over a period of a year (all recorded here). Even now, I can’t clearly see my intention behind writing those. I wanted to be seen for what I was going through and not be on my own. It seems important to say, and maybe not surprisingly, that the feedback and support I received was rather mixed.
Some people were deeply moved to hear about my journey and how I was navigating it (see the letter from a friend here). Others were puzzled and I am guessing worried. For example, someone felt that focusing on the pain wasn’t healthy and may aggravate the situation. In my family some were a bit taken aback as “it’s not in our culture to talk about pain so openly”. Many people didn’t respond. Since then, I learnt that discussing one’s pain with people close to us is to be avoided. Many experience it as heavy going, which makes sense, and therefore struggle to hold us in a way that feels safe.
On balance, and despite the raw nakedness that inhabited me after writing and sending those messages, I overall experienced a real sense of being held in community. In my body I was alone, and often in my mind too but in countless other ways, I wasn’t. Even the uncomfortable responses took me to a place of deeper self-awareness and helped burst a story in my mind that I was doing ‘fine’. In reality, I wasn’t and by allowing my fragility to be witnessed by others, I believe it helped me dig deeper into my inner resources, strengthened them, and step by step enabled me to be in my body with more acceptance, a little more relaxed, and imprisoned in my thoughts. I also dug deeper into spirituality, through meditation, studying and other practices. This led to what I would call a real expansion of Being; something I had been longing for for years and has been critical to help me land in myself at a whole different level.
Two more experiments to conclude on
When Alastair and I came back from France after a visit to my family last September (2020), we needed to self-isolate for two weeks because of the on-going Covid restrictions. I was anxious about the loneliness I thought I would experience. Again, I called on a number of friends to be able to speak with somebody at least once a day. As it happened, I ended up connecting with 2 to 3 people daily. I had never been so socially connected in my life! On the practical side, I had created a WhatsApp group to find out who’d be open to chat when. Aside from being an effective organising tool, it allowed everyone to witness the flow of support coming my way, to relax in what they could each give or not and to delight in the outcomes I was feeding back.
The pain didn’t stop with the end of quarantine nor my need for support. Social interactions are still severely curtailed, and for as long as I feel challenged by my aching body and worrying mind, I want to be able to rest in the hands and hearts of a group of caring friends.
The support group that I have at present (still via WhatsApp) is made of a dozen of people, and is inspired by the paragraph in an article written by my friend and mentor Miki Kashtan titled “Creating islands of love”. She writes, “…. I don’t see a possibility of enough of us healing enough trauma as individuals fast enough for that to be a path of liberation. I do see a different path that, if embraced widely enough, might stand a chance. This path is about creating communities of practice, commitment, and support that take on the work of liberation, of restoring capacity in all these areas, as their purpose; and the vision of a world based on flow, togetherness, and choice as framing their values.”
Autumn Island (as this group is called) is one such community of practice, support and commitment. Like all my previous support systems, it’s enabling me to process the grief that’s inherent to living with persistent pain. It strengthens my capacity to live with it without feeling crushed. Members are committed to support my wellbeing within their capacity. And although I don’t often post messages and call on the group right now (as I feel stronger), it’s a constant reminder of the presence of community in my life. There’s deep comfort in that.
Miki Kashtan, “THe Power of Soft Qualities to Transform Patriarchy” in Self and Society Journal, Vol. 48, Autumn 2020, https://ahpb.org/index.php/miki-kashtan-the-power-of-the-soft-qualities-to-transform-patriarchy/