Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series on Community: what it is, what it means and what it can be. Click to view Part 1: Community Starts with Finding Common Ground and Part 2: Successful Community requires Successful Communication.
We're in this boat together.
I recently went white-water rafting for the first time. Eight individuals in the same raft (all newbies) and a guide, each equipped with a single paddle. Starting out, the experienced guide patiently coached us through what to expect on the venture ahead of us and how to work together to successfully navigate through the raging river.
Still, we were eight individuals.
We were asked to select two leaders placed in the front on either side of the raft. Upon the guide’s direction, these two leaders were to look to each other to ensure they were starting & working together; the other rowers on either side of the raft were to look to their leader as a guide to their paddle strokes.
Still, we were eight individuals.
As the waters got rough, and tension rose, much of our training went temporarily forgotten or ignored. As one of the two leaders, I made my own rookie mistakes. A couple of times I failed to look to my fellow leader to synchronize our movements. When our side of the boat rose from the water, I held my paddle, awaiting return to the water, rather than making a rowing motion through air, causing timing issues behind me (my team of followers may have still had water to row through). Occasionally, paddles smacked together as two individuals rowed at different times.
We were eight individuals.
Still, in a boat with others (rather than say, in a kayak on our own as a newb on the whitewater) was to our advantage. At one particularly rough stage, the girl behind me grabbed my life vest to help steady her fall. There is strength in numbers. Strength in working together.
Towards the end, we started to figure it out. Leaders became more confident, looking to each other to coordinate our efforts. Rowers worked together, in synchronicity.
Finally, we were a team. We worked together to guide the single craft we all shared.
But what if we had all continued doing our own thing, eight individuals rowing toward different parts of the river? Expending effort and energy haphazardly and fruitlessly? Allowing others to fall while trying to save our own skin? That inefficient course would have been to the detriment of us all.
There’s something about human nature that occasionally finds pleasure in seeing someone else fail, particularly if we view them as an opponent. Somehow in our mind, their failure translates in our mind to our own imagined success; their lesser standing somehow improves our own individual standing.
But what if we’re in the same boat? What if they’re actually on our team and not an opponent at all?
In a recent conversation, an acquaintance — a leader in their community — recounted with mild satisfaction a situation in which a large organization which had ended an institutional partnership was now experiencing financial problems while ‘going it alone.’ This wasn’t a private individual or small business partnership with limited impact; these were both major pillars of a shared community, lead rowers operating within their same boat. The problems experienced by another rower was a problem for the whole boat.
So the moral of the story is this: If one of the major organizations within our community fails, struggles, experiences setback or disruption, it’s to the detriment of us all. There's no room in this boat for taking private satisfaction when one of our fellow community-rowers struggles or fails. If that happens, keep a watchful eye out for our boat; don't limit your concern to your seat in the boat. We've got to ask ourselves: what can we do to help or support them? Our efforts on their behalf may just keep our shared boat afloat.
Yes, it’s sometimes easier to go it alone, to do our own thing, because let’s face it - people can sometimes be tough to get along with. And if we're ready to get real, we can sometimes (rarely, occasionally) be tough to get along with. And it’s easy to see other ‘rowers’ in our community as “Them” in Us-versus-Them terms. But the fact of the matter is, if they’re in our community, they’re Us; we’re in the same boat, on the same team. Helping them is helping Us.
The quicker we’re able to ‘get it together’ and figure out this partnership and collaboration thing, identifying individual strengths and employing them strategically, the quicker we can move forward — together — rather than expending needless energy and duplicating efforts.
Community is unity.
Mark Gibson is Executive Director of The Haute Initiative, a grass-roots non-profit dedicated to promoting & celebrating the greater Terre Haute/Vigo County community.