For Love of the Village
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
This week, I learned a way to describe an experience that has been recently coming into my awareness. I'm sure I'm not alone in it. It's not specific to Covid, and yet, it's certainly become more evident because of it. The experience is the loss of the village - the loss of the community we once had and no longer do, or the loss of the community we are hard-wired to yearn for as human beings and yet cannot encounter or realize. This is a unique loss. It is no one person's fault. And yet, together, we all contributed to it.
And it hurts. Surprisingly so. Far earlier than I thought I would encounter her again, I find myself face-to-face with grief: grief for the loss of the village I never really had; grief for the loss of the village my heart expects and cannot fully encounter. At least not yet. Increasingly, for many of us in modern societies, because of the massive accrual of unfelt grief in this domain, I'm convinced that grieving the loss of the village that could not be is a condition precedent to any genuine manifestation of the village in the future.
I began learning about this from psychotherapist, writer, and "soul-activist" Francis Weller. In his incredibly touching book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Weller writes about the importance of the "village," that is - the most evolved and intimate manifestation of true community. Such a community has many functions. For one, the support of a genuine village allows psycho-spiritual wounds to heal without lasting scars. Whether it is a traumatic event, or even one of life's smallest stumbles, a true village surrounds those affected with the utmost care and loving attention, and in so doing, "nips" self-blame "in the bud," so to speak. Tragedy is perhaps unavoidable, but the presence of a village creates the conditions for healing and, as such, diminishes the chances of self-loathing, unhealthy regret, despair, or distortions of worthlessness in the aftermath of challenging times. In difficult moments, the village can interrupt lasting trauma by unequivocally and gently asserting that one's belonging is absolute. They remind the one hurting that what has occurred is part of life and not their fault. They renew assertions of love to cushion the fall from the event, and yet they do not deny the hurt of the fall. In this way, the village is a protector, not only of genuine human belonging, but also of growth and resilience.
Weller writes that the village also keeps its people "spiritually employed." It does this by continually celebrating the gifts and contributions of its constituent members: acknowledging one another, praising one another, relying on one another's skills and talents, and expressing gratitude. Keeping one another "spiritually employed," therefore, is like fanning the flames of each others' dreams with a celebratory spirit, or gently blowing on the timid coals of each others' wholesome efforts with understanding and kindness. It means beholding one another's sadness, despair, and anger as simply part and parcel of the fullness of being human, and as experiences that only further hone and deepen our understanding and talents. It means loving one another - not quietly - but loudly. We need it. We want it. And it feels good to receive that kind of loyal beholding and to offer it to someone else. The village offers a container to live out our highest potential as compassionate sentient beings.
In many ways, my mother was the heart center of the village she aspired to create during my youth. As a child, I had a fairly consistent circle of family and friends that, generally speaking, had something to say about me and my well-being. I liked that kind of investment. I have a lot of gratitude for my mother, who organized countless dinners, picnics, holidays, and other events to attempt a quasi-modern-village for my sister and me. Sadly, however, I think there was an imbalanced reliance on her organizational energy. This, I fear, is what hindered our realization to full-blown "village-hood." It literally takes a village to realize a village, and one lone individual is not enough to sustain it. Like an ecosystem, the village needs constant reciprocal contributions from all its component parts. All must agree to share their gifts, and this necessitates no small investment of energy and commitment. Even beholding and witnessing the gifts of others is an active enterprise: an affirmative willingness to receive. There is no such thing as a passive village.
When my mother died, the nets of the community she held so tightly necessarily dropped, and many within our circle scattered. There is nothing inherently wrong with this: change is how it is. And yet, at the same time, in circumstances like these, the very normal biological and spiritual need to be held and witnessed becomes an unfulfilled prophecy. After a while, even the taste of the aspiring village begins to fade, even when the painful yearning for it is still there. It is as if we unconsciously and instinctively raise our arms and reach out our hands towards a vast spacious earthly landscape, and yet, do not precisely know what we are expecting to grasp. We only know it is important.
Weller reminded me that the disintegration or non-fulfillment of our respective villages is a profound loss. It is also, for the most part, an ungrieved one. For me, grieving this loss properly means tapping into the heart that wants of and for others - and seeing this tender yearning as a strength, not a symptom of spiritual immaturity. It means allowing yourself to cry over the many times you tried to create a community that, despite your efforts, didn't manifest. It means giving space to the pain of being too fearful to reach out, too shy to share your vulnerability, too scared of what it would mean if people were incapable of beholding you. In grieving the loss of the village fully, we honor its importance in the web of our humanity. It is exquisite, in fact, that we love and long for the genuine village enough to grieve its absence.
Without fully grieving that which we never fully received - how else can we start to give form to that which we want but don't yet know? How else can we start to cognize what a village is, if we cannot grieve the loss of what it couldn't be? In grieving the loss of the village, we approach the possibility of a true village with courage and reverence.
And when we are finally at this point of deep grief - that is, when we are honestly abiding in the painful loving reverence for the villages we have lost, for the villages we never had, and for the villages we are karmically bound to expect and want - then, and only then, can we can start to put image and form to what lies just beyond our yearning outstretched hands.
A caring, interdependent, honest, loving, witnessing, celebratory, committed, intimate village
That never was, or never fully was, or was and was lost
What a tragedy
In being with the tragedy, in grieving it fully
We re-encounter what we love
With all its curvatures and angles of possibility
And so, grief for the loss of the village becomes the sacred path
To falling so ferociously in love with the village again
That we at last behold its potential
In this spirit
Grieve with reverence
That which you were born to love.