Dave’s Desk@Ditch: Circles of Trust

“No matter how much we may feel the need for a circle of trust, few of us can imagine taking time for community on top of everything else. Even if we can, we find it hard to imagine that other people would be able or willing to come along with us.”  

Never has this decades-old sentiment by acclaimed author and activist Parker J. Palmer seemed more prescient than the past year, during the height of the pandemic. 

With so many folks turning inward for various reasons, primarily due to imposed isolation and a focus on self-care, it shouldn’t be all that surprising if one were to embrace such an approach.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned recently (and quite sure that I’m not alone in this belief), it’s that solitude, under certain circumstances, can be either restorative or it can be detrimental. 

If left unchecked, we run the risk of losing touch with the very part of our human nature that thrives on connecting with others — in essence, our sense of community.

“Circles of trust” have intrigued me ever since I came across several of Palmer’s works some years ago, and more recently in a segmented discussion given through his Center for Courage and Renewal, where he shares with viewers a few of the ground rules one can expect when creating the foundation for each encounter. 

For readers not so familiar with his offerings on this particular topic, much of it evolved through his experience living and learning in a Quaker community just outside of Philadelphia during the 1970s.

To start with, there are distinct, non-negotiable understandings that a participant must abide by prior to joining, and must adhere to throughout the duration of the collaboration. It’s important to note that one who joins such a circle does so freely. 

Once there, Palmer offers: “We will establish the conditions that will be hospitable to your soul. That will be welcoming to your soul. And that your soul will find trustworthy. That kind of community — one that knows how to welcome the soul and help us hear its voice — I call a circle of trust.”

Wanting to explore this concept further, I delved into one of Palmer’s books, titled, “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life,” where I found an abundance of pithy insights illustrating multiple practices that guide such circles. In particular, there were two specific principles that seemed to resonate and stand out among the lot. 

The first tenet addresses the role that we all play in connecting with community, where he writes: “A circle of trust may lack size, scope, and continuity as compared to a traditional community. But it makes up for what it lacks by being intentional about its life — about why we are together, about where we want to go, and about how we must relate to each other if we are to reach our destination.”

It’s the sense of intentionality or purpose that I find to be of significant value here. Traditionally, we tend to come to the proverbial table full of ideas and input, which, knowingly or not, are based in ego. We like to think that our suggestions are unique and should be implemented immediately, yet those precepts are typically framed around the conventional, often-times coercive norms within our society; lacking true commitment or individuality. Institutions of higher education, organized religions, and the medical fields come to mind, to name just a few. Circles of trust tend to be more countercultural in nature, where a person’s safety or vulnerability is ensured while maintaining one’s diversity of thought.

The other principle that I found to be of great significance involves the role that time plays when it comes to integrating these purposeful connections: “Unlike a traditional community,” Palmer states, “a circle of trust need not be the constant context of our lives. It can be a group of people with whom we meet once a week for an hour or two, once a month for the better part of a day, or three times a year for a weekend. People can depart gracefully if the experience is not supportive, or renew their participation if it is.” 

Are circles of trust something that everyone should jump into wholeheartedly without much thought or research? Probably not — but what they can provide is a space where one can develop a balanced relationship with other souls who seek to stay present with one another.

Dave Davis

Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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