Communitas: Hope and Belonging in the Midst of Disruption
“The pandemic and current social uprising changes everything we see, everything we write, and everything we read.”
— Jane Hirshfield, Poet
Point of Departure
It is likely that the pandemic and its aftermath may constitute a point of departure from the way we have lived to a future that is very different from where we seemed to be heading just a few months ago. While many of us continue to be “sheltered” at home or work, whatever bubble of protection we feel is likely to dissipate. In times like this, when things fall apart, and a new direction is not really clear, a sense of intense community spirit can arise among those who find themselves traversing the turbulence of change together. This shared sense of community spirit is referred to as “communitas” by anthropologists and other social scientists. It is full of intense relatedness, aliveness and feeling. Especially now, when the prevailing feeling of uncertainty and instability is so pervasive, appreciating communitas can give us insight and hope.
We are in a moment in time in which the real long-term impact of the pandemic, the economic free fall it has caused, the racial injustices it lays bare, and many of the other social and environmental issues that are already urgent will remake our lives. Where I live in California, we are already anticipating the upcoming fire season and are wondering if we are prepared to deal with the consequences of wildfires on our communities—especially now that they are also heavily impacted by the pandemic. The overlapping crises are complex. Survivors of the decimated town of Paradise, for instance, are already being referred to as refugees in the towns where they are now trying to rebuild their lives. We know the already disenfranchised suffer more when things fall apart.
It is important to hear from those at the ‘frontline’ who, due to the current crises, have lost their jobs or loved ones, have been ill or hurt, and from those who are attempting to forecast impacts, and are already designing the new work, community, and economy. In the midst of loss, people are coming together in new ways to make meaning of this time and to imagine a path forward to create a future that responds to this present time. Can we reset the old trajectory of where we have been heading to better, much better, alternatives? Regardless of how clear or unclear we are, we will have to change.
Picasso claimed, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” His perspective provides an important, albeit unsettling, frame for this inquiry. It seems that given the level of destruction we are already experiencing, simply fixing the status quo is not enough. Creating something new is required. But to begin the process of moving through the death and birth cycle that Picasso’s words suggest, we consciously must let go of ideas that are no longer useful, be open to change fundamentally the way we think, and be prepared to adjust radically the way we live, including caring for each other and healing the wounds from what has been broken. Being willing to be changed by our experiences is foundational. This means allowing ourselves to become undone by what is going on around us. Making room for grieving for what has been lost and finding joy in the out-of-the ordinary sense of camaraderie that is found in crisis allows us to connect to our deepest humanity. It is through these acts of opening up, letting go and being available to more direct connections with others that we can enter the territory between the old and the new to imagine and move toward a future we believe in. Communitas is our hopeful ally in this process. Let’s go deeper into what that means.
Belonging and Hope at the Heart of Communitas
Communitas is a felt experience of a group of people whose lives together spontaneously take on full meaning. Edith Turner in Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy writes that communitas occurs through the readiness of people—perhaps from necessity—to rid themselves of their concern for status and dependence on structures, and see their fellows as they truly are or in new ways. In communitas we share the burden of the disruption and the joy of camaraderie and belonging. Our vulnerabilities become a collective asset. Creativity and inspiration arise as limiting ideas, habits and social structures begin to feel like shackles from the past. Understanding the role and function of communitas can help inform how to welcome, amplify, respond to, and perhaps even invite this powerful experience.
In the initial months after the outbreak, as many of us began to gather almost exclusively online, I noticed that during many video calls we spent a great deal of time talking about the numerous ways the pandemic had impacted us. We needed to digest what was going on, the ways that our social agreements were beginning to shift, and how the things we used to take for granted were just no longer so. So much started feeling up in the air and up for grabs. With the protests against police violence and racial injustices simultaneously sweeping across the country, it seemed even more important to gather and spend time together with loved ones, friends and people with whom we feel communitas.
In times of crisis we need each other to make meaning out of what is going on. Shared meaning making is essential for healing from what has been broken, feeling a sense of belonging, and finding orientation when usual reference points are gone. The feeling of sharing the burden builds a sense of “we” and camaraderie and helps generate a sense of inner strength for both the individual and the group.
Under circumstance like this, coming together for this purpose is something we do naturally. Often there is minimal, if any, formal structure and generally only few informal but powerful agreements. Often these ways of coming together are so informal, spontaneous, and transitional, that we do not recognize the powerful purpose they serve in helping to bring about transformational change.
Understanding and consciously embracing communitas helps in these times. When social systems fragment as they currently are, communitas strengthens our capacity to engage, amplify, and direct the momentum of change. Like a vessel, it serves as a temporary social container that carries us across the uncertain and sometimes dangerous waters of change.
Communitas Arising in Rites of Passages
The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner explored communitas as a central social form in the universal pattern of rites of passages. He saw it happening in the communities of traditional cultures but also in larger social undertakings, such as pilgrimages, non-violent protests, and even the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. In the simplest terms, rites of passages describe a universally applicable three-phased pattern that together make up a complete transition process.
- Separation: In the initial phase of separation, a change process is set into motion and the old is left behind. This can be a change that is developmental, for example moving from adolescence into adulthood, or it can be volitional, which is a change we choose to make, like moving to another city in a career move. It could also be situational change, which is a change that happens outside of our control. The pandemic functions that way. But no matter the reason, a change forces us to separate from something that has been and has defined who we are.
- In-Between: From there we enter into the in-between zone in which we are no longer the old and not yet the new. This in-between space is characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, and disorientation, and we encounter the unknown. It is in this space that our internal sense of who we are falls apart. It is within this opening that we find the seed of the new or the gift, the knowledge, or wisdom that is needed to guide us into a new future. It is also within this phase that those moving through the rites of passages together are likely to experience communitas—the sense of belonging to a group of equals who share the burdens and joys of this time together.
- Integration: In the third phase, we begin to do the important work of integrating what we have gained in the in-between phase into our new lives.
Along the path of this three-phased processional are rites or ceremonies that galvanize and focus the momentum of change as we move from phase to phase. Ritual activities help create the conditions for communitas to arise. Rituals, if they are alive and dynamic rather than based in routine, help release the transformative energies that usually are not available in ordinary contexts. Many traditional cultures are known for their rich repertoire of ceremonial practices.
Applying his insights to more contemporary settings, Victor Turner emphasized that this universal three-phased pattern exists even if the accompanying rites or ceremonies do not. The lack of these practices in our contemporary approaches to change work contribute to the feeling of change being a permanent experience rather than cycles that have beginnings, middles and ends. Without these rituals, we do not have the markers that align with our inner experience. Fortunately, it appears that we are experiencing a renewed interest in ritual practices and how rituals can support stability and catalyze change. For several years now several of my colleagues and I, for example, have been hosting Leading as Sacred Practice Conferences to co-explore with other leaders, facilitators and social-change agents how ritual processes support individual and social transformation.
Communitas Arising Outside Conventional Structures and Norms
Victor Turner saw communitas as lightly structured and transient communities that come together outside conventional organizational forms and classifications of rank and status in response to significant individual and collective transitions. He emphasized that in communitas, members recognize their sameness rather than their differences. They can move through the challenges of the change process together and find connection, hopefulness and even joy.
Although communitas is not necessarily in opposition to existing conventions, it is the release of these conventions that creates the conditions for a different sense of what is possible. In their togetherness people in communitas share the burden of a change or crises they are in. They share feeling liberated from calcified conventions, hierarchies, and organizational forms that resist change, and together find access to motivation, the creative spark, and strengths beyond what is available when alone. Communitas supports being direct, open, transparent, intimate, and vulnerable. It is liberating and full of vitality.
Collective meaning making through dialogic exchanges and storytelling is a function of communitas. The feeling of communitas affirms not only a sense of shared sameness amongst those experiencing communitas but also a shared sense of difference in the face of all that has been left behind. This arises from being in a change together. It is strongest when prior ideas of status quo, roles and sense of self fall away. Communitas may well be at the heart of what we call community resilience.
The Blossoming of Communitas Right Now
Here are a few instances of the blossoming of communitas that I have noticed. As you read, think about where you might be experiencing the presence of communitas in your life.
Early into the pandemic, our business—The Grove Consultants International—decided to hold three weekly online “huddles” with the staff for the sole purpose of keeping us connected and informed about how we are doing in the face of the unpredictability of the emerging crisis. Often, we went on much longer than planned because there was much to talk about and, as a consequence, we grew to know each other in new, perhaps more intimate ways. Especially in the beginning, these meetings became a place of sanity in what often looked like…well, kind of insane! These informal check-in calls instilled in us a sense that we are in this together, and allowed us to begin aligning our thinking and how to vision our way forward—step by step.
Several weeks ago, a friend’s political-action group shifted its weekly calls to talk about how it is responding to the pandemic. The group’s mutual support was inspiring. Our neighborhood has been holding bi-weekly zoom calls for information sharing and supporting neighbors with specific needs. My women’s circle decided to add additional calls to what were until now quarterly in-person get-togethers. In our Leading Global Learning & Exchange Network, a peer learning and social action community dedicated to evolving the practice of collaboration, we have been holding community Zoom calls since March and have planned several more this summer to collectively witness and make sense out of what is going on. With members from across five continents, getting a global view is very helpful to understanding what our work is now as organizational and social leaders and change agents.
A dear colleague described that the people she works with in her organization-development practice are more available for deeper conversations than usual. Another colleague reported something similar when he reflected on his virtual facilitation of an industry roundtable. He noticed a tangible shift in how participants shared more personally and openly about their organizations and their concern for social-justice issues that have been so amplified by the pandemic. In our new Grove online workshop offering, Virtual Leadership in Uncertain Times, participants experienced an unexpected sense of openness and bonding with each other as they deeply explored the vulnerability and responsibility of being a learning leader at a time when old answer don’t work anymore and learning well and quickly with those around us becomes priceless.
Communitas is also arising at larger social levels. The protests against police brutality and systemic racism are spontaneously erupting into many moments of communitas for those who take to the streets and participate. A call with colleagues on the topic of “what is our complicity in racism” created moments of unexpected and heartfelt truth telling that surprised us all. It seemed as though we together were growing in our capacity to be with the enormous loss, grief, shame and anger that we necessarily tap into when opening to understanding and healing from the racism that is at the foundation of this society.
Last year when the annual fires were again burning though urban and semi urban areas in California, many towns around us were evacuated. Feelings of being in this together were expressed between those who were evacuated, and those who could offer their home, supplies or simply emotional comfort. When a major crisis disrupts our social fabric, it can also sets free the energy for us to experience the deep sense of connection to one another and the healing joy of communitas. When the ordinary is shaking, something extraordinary can happen.
What Is Ours to Do?
Communitas is something we can welcome, embrace, and allow to move us. We can celebrate it and let ourselves be nourished by it. When it is happening, what we can do as leaders and facilitators is to join in rather than trying to control it. It has its intensity because it happens outside of the plans we made, the structures we created, and the norms to which we usually adhere. The energy of communitas flows freely among people. It is spirited. It is transformative. But the spontaneity and immediacy of communitas cannot be willed and seldomly maintained for long.
If you are interested in learning more, Victor Tuner offers further distinctions between the kind of spontaneous communitas I talk about here and what he termed normative communitas, arising from agreements on new norms for interacting. Through the delicate touch of informal or formal facilitative leaders, the feeling of communitas may be sustained for a longer period of time with lightly held norms. This is especially important for leaders and facilitators who are wondering about their role in communitas. Joining others as peers may be much more supportive than staying attached to prior roles. We can actively support communitas by attuning to what is arising rather than prior designs or preconceived notions.
Traditional rites of passages can also be good guide for understanding more about how to support communitas. Traditional communities have a wide range of roles and tasks associated with preparing for and conducting rituals and ceremonies that are intended to care for the soul and well-being of the community. Shamans, medicine men or women, chief, elders, teachers, artists, and musicians all serve support roles. In our contemporary context, a range of respected individuals may be called upon to provide this kind of special support. Individuals in these roles may take on the special role of caring for the members of the communitas.
Today a great deal of local and global connectivity is created through virtual technology and tools. Various new roles are being called upon to provide this kind of special support as virtual facilitators, tech hosts, and the like. This development has been a much-welcomed response to the many ways that shelter in place has been separating us. Even in online environments since the start of the pandemic, the spirit of communitas has been received like an unexpected blessing. We don’t really know yet how this evolution to virtual connectivity at home, in our workplace, and the local and global communities and networks will evolve. Zoom fatigue is already setting in and the novelty of unexpected closeness in online spaces may wear down. A great deal is evolving in terms of how we will live our lives.
In conclusion, I want to point to the need to stretch beyond our comfortable friends and networks in experiencing communitas. In this time of crises an increasing number of individuals are becoming marginalized and invisible. Many feel completely alone in their struggle. If they can receive the attention of others who join them in their grief and celebrate the joys of sharing their humanity, they too may come to experience the benefit of communitas—the feeling of belonging, the possibility of healing, and partaking in the creation of the new.