“Without a community, it’s harder for a person to change anything. If you work in a hospital or a clinic, or anyplace where you have to practice compassion with people in crisis on a daily basis, you know that having colleagues who support you in that practice creates a much more healing effect. A good environment allows the best things in us to manifest. A toxic environment can bring out the worst things in us.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this passage from Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s work titled, “No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.” 

Of course I immediately thought of all the frontline workers whose dedication to their profession (and to humanity), has tested every ounce of patience and compassion that they must have stored over a lifetime. That more of them haven’t succumbed to the pressures of the crisis at hand is truly a testament to their resilience, and quite possibly, to the supportive community that surrounds them.

Of course the term “community” can take on various meanings, depending on the perspective, from something as small and tight-knit as folks gathering each week to stock, package, and disperse much-needed items at a local food pantry to a more macro organization such as the Red Cross, dispatching scores of volunteers to a disaster area leveled by hurricane-force winds and storm surge waters. 

Either way, it’s a collective life experience from which each member gains insight and is able to draw strength while performing tasks to the best of their abilities.

As a preschool educator working with at-risk families, I was keenly aware of the challenges those at the margins endure each day, long before the pandemic came to our shores. 

The cyclical nature of our resort-based economy already presents many folks with inconsistent work schedules and unreliable income streams that often resemble an EKG monitor. Add to the mix an imposed need for isolation, coupled with a complete work stoppage across the board for months on end, and that monitor immediately develops into an acute, “code-red” situation.

What has made this experience particularly challenging at several times throughout the past two years, has been the need for self-care like we’ve never seen before. Personally, I found this to be incredibly difficult —placing my own needs above all others, especially in times of collective crisis — it’s just not something that I’d been accustomed to doing on a regular basis. As I’ve shared with readers in a previous column, I paid the price both mentally and physically by neglecting this need for self-care, so much so that it required months of recuperation from unexpected stress-related episodes that literally stopped me in my tracks.

Thinking that I could “go it alone” was my biggest mistake. I had my circle of trusted friends, my “community” to rely upon for support if you will, yet for some reason I chose not to reach out or even convey a sense of need. At the time, my logic was that “everyone was suffering, so who am I to ask for help?” 

Looking back, it’s easy to see how shortsighted and far from the truth that was, as many of those friends and family members would later play an integral role in my recovery, alongside some regularly-scheduled remote sessions with a trained professional. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh would later reveal in another passage: “There are times when a case of suffering is so great, it needs recognition from more than just one person. We all need help sometimes when suffering threatens to overwhelm us — and when suffering has become a seemingly impenetrable obstacle, we can learn how to draw on the support of others.”

Clearly, the irony of this all-important life lesson can’t be emphasized enough. We all need to “accept” our own reliance upon community, if we are in fact going to “give” to our community. You can’t have one without the other. It literally is a package deal, and rightfully so.

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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