The importance of community

I have not always been this passionate about community but when I moved to the States, almost 11 years ago, and had to start everything from scratch, I became sorely aware of the importance of having people in your life, whom you can count on. People you can celebrate life’s joys and successes with, and people you can reach out to when the going gets rough. I must say it has been a long and slow journey for me to reach a place where I could truly say that I have a meaningful community in my life.

The truth is that unless you embark on a journey like starting school, or sending your kids to preschool or kindergarten, or taking some kind of class or training with other people who are also doing these things for the first time, it is hard for community to take place organically. People have their networks, their groups of friends, their routines, and trying to blend in and fit into something that has already been existing for a while can be challenging.

Living in a city that has 30+ million inhabitants poses another type of challenge as well: it is crowded, everyone is busy, nobody wants to drive more than they have to for work, and you can easily become anonymous in this big crowd. I have found out that it’s like pulling teeth to make community happen, in a place like LA.

However, research shows that having meaningful relationships reduces the risk of addictions, depression, suicide and stress. Loneliness, apparently, is more dangerous than alcoholism, in that it leads to more deaths. Wow! Scary statistics!

So how exactly, are you supposed to meet friends, make friends and meaningful friends at that? I don’t pretend to have the answers, and I know it does take time. This blog post is inspired by recent events I had to face, where I reached out to my community, and was surrounded by tremendous support, love and encouragement. It’s been quite a bit of work to make community happen in my life, but it has been so worth the effort! Here are the things I learned along the way:

1) Be a good neighbor: if/when you move into a new place, introduce yourself to your neighbors. Say hi any opportunity you have, be helpful with little things if you can, bring a batch of those extra cookies you just made, chat in the staircase or in the street when you come home from work, and if you click, invite them over for a drink or a meal. Granted, you may not always have the perfect neighbors, and you may have the kind that you don’t really want to socialize with. But there might be those gems of people that you could become great friends with.

2) If you have children, connect with other parents at their school. Go to birthday parties and meet people, go to school events, and maybe even organize informal school events, such as a mom’s night in/out or parents night out, or playdates at the park. Offer to help whenever you can, with drop off and pick up, or babysitting. The favor will be returned when you ask for it/need it, and in the mean time, you are building a network of friends and people who can count on each other.

3) start a baby-sitting coop through your child’s school

4) spot a few friends you really like, whether they are colleagues, neighbors, fellow parents, church friends, and organize an outing. Happy Hour, potluck, hike, whatever you might like to do together. Make it something regular.

5) Spend time around the table with people that you invite to your house. Coming from a European culture, this is a major way that we connect with each other, around a good meal, without the distraction of TV or computers. I have maintained that tradition and make it a point to sit down at a nicely set table when I invite people over. It’s usually a success :)

6) Reach out to others around you that are in need. If someone has a baby, organize a meal calendar for them, with others from the community. If someone is in the hospital, offer to run errands for them or babysit their kids. There are millions of little things we can do every day to be kind to others, which can make a huge difference in their life, and ultimately in yours too.

7) If you are single, or married without kids, pick something you like to do, and get involved! Volunteer at your church, take a dance class, join a small gym or club, and do what you love with like-minded people.

I know this sounds like a lot of effort, and when you are alone and isolated, you don’t always have the energy to invest into others’ lives, and would like to just be taken care of. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen spontaneously, and you might have to work at it. But the efforts are worth it, and I have found a lot of joy in giving and investing in other people’s life. When it was my turn to be in need, when I was stranded and needed a hand with childcare or other basic things, I knew who I could turn to: wonderful friends, whom I have invested into, and who have invested in me. An irreplaceable community of people.

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