Our family includes two dogs (a sweet, behemoth of an Airedale and a Fox Terrier with an Othello-sized jealousy streak) and two cats (a sleek, black Siamese and her curvaceous, calico daughter). The dogs, Flash and Cowboy, stay indoors except for their walks and daily romps in the backyard. They lie next to their humans, follow them around the house, and wait impatiently for the next treat or playtime with their addiction of choice: The Kong! Neither will go outside to play without the other by his side.
The cats, Jezebel and Bebe, are much more independent. While Jezebel snuggles next to us every night, most of her day is spent outside. She and Bebe go their separate ways and roam the neighborhood, making friends and mostly taking naps in the sunniest spots they can find. Yet even these independent cats seek community: someone to lay next to, someone to groom and be groomed by, and someone with whom to dine.
We Americans emphasize the individual. Other societies emphasize community. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, but a balance is needed.
When I visited Japan, I learned to greet people by their family name because that family identity is the most precious and accurate way of introducing one's self, more so than one's individual name. You simply won't find an empty bottle or scrap of paper lying on the sidewalk, even in major cities like Tokyo. Why? Because each person sees the sidewalk as her or his responsibility to keep clean on behalf of the whole community. In America our streets our littered with the debris of our self-preoccupation.
The downside of Japanese identification with the community is that the needs of the individual are often compromised for the sake of community, family, and corporate loyalty. Commuter trains are full of dapper business people just leaving work at 10pm on a Friday night.
Jezebel and Bebe embody a middle path that balances independence and belonging to one another. Most of us have lost the sense of being part of a village, much less the greater whole of humanity. Living alone, or in our nuclear families or with small families of choice, we feel starved for deeper human connection. Our self-centered stories fail to give us the context for who we are.
So how do we experience that balance of community and individuality? I asked the cats. They told me it's all about listening to the purr deep within you. Sometimes that purr compels you to be alone and explore the limits of your freedom. However, that purr always leads you back home, back to where your heart beats to the rhythm of another's heart. Back to where you are always welcomed with nourishment. Back home with the collective where you start to understand deep in your fur what all your individual wanderings meant. Curled up together, you can deeply rest...at least until the dogs arrive.
For reflection: Where do you sense an opportunity for deeper community? What is your next step in that direction?
P.S. If you live in the Bay Area, come join us for our weekly experiment with community: Tuesday Night Live.