Antidote to Division- Building Communities

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In the last post, I discussed how giving other people psychological space and having gratitude for the diversity they bring to the community is a powerful step toward forming healthy organizations and neighborhoods. Making psychological space and appreciating diversity is the first step in forming relationships between diverse groups. If we create a common psychological space where Native Americans, Caucasians, and African Americans can understand one another we have a common psychological place where relationships can develop. However, while this diversity is a strength any community should embrace, it’s going to be difficult to develop relationships with one another if we’re not intentional about doing so regardless of how diverse we are. We don’t naturally draw together with people we perceive as different from ourselves even if we’re more than willing to be friendly towards them. Simply stated, a friendly exchange isn’t enough if we’re truly developing a vibrant interconnected community. A real community finds ways to develop intimate relationships between its members.

This ability to connect with others on an intimate level is exceptionally important for people. One of its key benefits is that it helps us develop a sense of identity. In fact, some psychological research indicates our sense of self is intimately tied to our group memberships. Along with developing an identity is the desire to affirm respect for who we are through seeking respect for the groups in which we belong. We are validated because the groups in which we are members are valued by our community. Because of this dynamic, you can see the subgroups of our community are strong and intimately tied to our very sense of identity. In short, our group memberships define us.

The process of grouping is the result of a number of psychological factors. It allows one to conserve mental energy and infer characteristics of the “things” grouped together. When one applies this benefit to categorizing people, it becomes more complex and becomes more of a liability than an asset. For example, the act of categorizing individuals into social groups often is all one needs to produce intergroup prejudice and discrimination. Human beings are not objects. When people categorize them as such, they infer characteristics that easily lead to discriminatory and prejudicial behaviors. These behaviors are more commonly known as stereotypes; cognitive shortcuts allowing individuals to justify behavior and simplify the world. The problem is that stereotypes are over generalized inferences, inaccurate, and difficult to change because they cause the one who creates them to be resistant to new information countering the stereotypical beliefs. Prejudice is an attitude that becomes difficult to contend with because it includes beliefs, emotions, and inclinations to action; core aspects of human behavior

While it sounds very cliche, the way we build intimate communities is we come to love those who are a part of the community. We find a way to love them so that they become a part of who we are. The “You and I” become the “we.” This is a unique experience of love that comes from an intentional type of interaction with one another. Mortimer Adler, a well-known philosopher writes of this love as a benevolent impulse that causes us to give to the other without concern for a fair exchange. We give without counting the cost. Love is for the benefit of the other and is expressed in goodwill. Yet for Adler, this is only the beginning of the exchange. He indicates this type of love exists for the benefit of the other and fosters a desire for the lover to also be loved. The desire to be loved then leads to the ultimate wish of love which is the “closest union” with the one who is called beloved.

There are profound ramifications this kind of love has on the effects of division and prejudice. If two groups are no longer self-interested and reach beyond themselves to embrace the other as they want to be embraced, the union that intimate communities thrive on can become a reality.

Psychological studies of prejudice and division prove we have a natural tendency to pull away from one another as an attempt to understand our universe and develop an identity. Yet this isn’t what we have to do just because we unconsciously do it.

To overcome this problem psychology provides a few answers. One of the most effective answers is to have diverse groups work toward a common goal. It has been found that prejudiced behaviors toward different groups are reduced when two diverse groups work to achieve a common goal (Watch the movie “Remember the Titans). Personalizing the “other” by having different groups interact more frequently is also helpful. This has been demonstrated in the desegregation of schools and public institutions.

While these are indeed very good approaches to developing intimate relationships within a community, the most effective, however, is to do these with a spirit of love. In a document named “Caritas in Veritate” by Pope Benedict the XVI we read the following: “Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God. Through this unifying process, it makes us a “We” which transcends our divisions and makes us one until, in the end, God is “All in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).”

Do you want to maximize the relationships in your community? Learn to love one another and work together for a common good. You may be surprised at how quickly your community transforms itself.

This post was originally published on “A Race To Healing.” If you like this material and are interested in building better communities feel free to check them out.