Those Other People

The other day I was chatting with a good friend via instant message, mentioning some information I’d read about the United Nations Development Programme. The UNDP has the following mission statement (slightly paraphrased by myself):

“[…] an organization advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life.”

I’ve known for a while that I love connecting individuals to knowledge, experience, and resources, but I’d never thought about how this was done on a grand scale. It’s pretty awesome that there are organizations all over the world that have this kind of mission, and one would think that being part of one would make me happy. But no…actually not. I found it odd that I could be pro-empowerment on the individual level, yet not find it in myself to extend my interest to entire groups of people. I commented on the apparent smallness of my heart to my friend:

Dave: I wonder what it is like to volunteer for something like this. I’ve never done it before. Never wanted to before. But now I am curious, with my recent interest in community building. I’m not sure where I fall on the line between “building for our people” versus “building for other people”. I don’t like doing things for ungrateful people, I guess. FriendX: Well, I guess you’d need to feel some sort of sense of community. Other people are just people you don’t know yet.

It’s amazing when an offhand comment like that unlocks a whole slew of realizations. In this case, I was able to connect past behaviors with future ones.

First, the dark side of my meet more people drive of the past few years. I had figured out that I’m actually most passionate about certain kinds of people, and that being around such people was a prime motivator. So I set out to start finding them, those special people who would be important parts of my life. I told myself that while such people were rare:

  • If you click with just one person out of 100 , you’ll be far better off than before.

  • Every individual is a treasure trove of new connections and information.

I believe these are both true statements. However, there is an unspoken presumption: There are people worth knowing, and people who aren’t. Even the people with interesting experiences are not classified as people; instead, they’re more like convenient sacks of data ripe for plundering. The smallness of this personal realization makes me shiver uncomfortably, and I don’t want it to be true. Nevertheless…I can feel it. What the hell is wrong with me?

A DAWNING REALIZATION

It’s unrealistic to expect that I will ever like or even get along with everyone, so I’ve presumed that this meant that there were people who were in my tribe and people who were not. This seems like a natural state of things to me. People who are not in my tribe are therefore irrelevant unless they are active threats. It’s only then that action needs to be taken. Up to now I thought this was a pretty reasonable way of looking at things. I can’t be responsible for everyone. However, FriendX’s statement made me realize something: while I can’t possibly be friends with even 3 out of 10 people, that doesn’t mean that the other 7 of 10 are “other people” to be thought of as junk. If I make the effort to meet new people, understand where they’re coming from and where they’re going—in short, to understand their stories and their lives—then they cease to be “other” and become “people” just like me. The common bond that we have is that we all want things to be better for ourselves. Sure, there are people who want to take from others for their own ease, and that’s evil, but by and large most people are decent folk. The essence of community, I realized, is that by helping other decent folk like yourself, you are really helping yourself in a weird way. I’m not clear how this works exactly, but I think by working directly with people of a similar mind, you naturally open yourself up to new opportunities. The operative term is working directly with people…that is, making a contribution of time and effort, as opposed to just writing a check. You can help people with a check, but you don’t build community. The personal ramifications are broad:
  • Instead of looking for those specific people who I think are the massive contributors, find a way to just talk to more of them and share some stories. That we’re all sharing in the same struggle is all the common bond we need. If I can lend a hand directly, then by all means I should. That said, I need to be careful about not overextending myself (very easy for anyone to do), but the flip side is that there’s often something I can do that doesn’t require a lot of direct investment.

  • Instead of avoiding the possibility of getting burned in a collaborative project, I should welcome those opportunities. My mentality in the past was that I always needed to work with very experienced, seasons vets for me to be happy about the project. Maybe this isn’t the case, so long as that desire is there.

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p>Frankly, both those ideas are absolutely terrifying to me, and I am not convinced it is a wise thing to do. Every fiber in my project manager hat is screaming ARE YOU CRAZY?, but another part of me (maybe it’s Mom) is smiling and nodding, pleased that I finally am on the verge of understanding something about people that I wasn’t capable of grasping before.

THE EXPANSION OF SCOPE

Previously, I saw my social hierarchies as a set of expanding rings.

  • Elder Friends, with whom I’ve been through a lot, or know me scarily well.
  • Close Friends, with whom I share important ideas and dreams.
  • Coworkers and Cohorts, who I scheme and collaborate with on projects.
  • Acquaintances, who I chat with every once in a while, but are not part of my daily continuity.
  • Contacts, who are people I sort of know only in a specific contexts (e.g.: a barrista at Starbucks, perhaps a tech support person at a company).

Each of these rings is “bound together” with of one or more of the following elements:

(1) emotional connection (2) work/life context (3) shared continuity of time/place

It’s interesting to note that the hierarchies at the top contain strong doses of all three, while the ones toward the bottom tend to have only one or two.

With the realization that there are no “other” people if I decide that this is the way to think about it, an additional element gets added to my social hierarchy ring game. I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but my best guess is that it’s this:

(4) the belief that we’re each responsible for contributing to the creation of a good life for the people around us.

That’s as close as I can get right now. I’m sure that the theologians, philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists out there probably can list a hundred different names for this idea, and that’s kind of exciting to think about. The thought that’s on my mind right now, however, is what is it that I can do to create that good life around me? But I’m getting ahead of myself: the first step is to get to know who people are. Then, they won’t be strangers anymore. That may be all the information I need.