For me, “community” has always been one of those abstract buzzwords that sounds nice in conversations, but ultimately is too vague to mean anything concrete.
“Build a sense of community!” is the cliche cry of various projects or social groups, and I’ve always viewed it as the idealistic slogan of optimistic, yet slightly impractical, leaders. I put it in the same category with other vague but nice-sounding catchphrases like, “make the world a better place” or “have a positive impact”—which everyone agrees is a noteworthy goal, but no one really ever knows exactly what it means or how to go about accomplishing this.
But one way to understand the true meaning of the word “community” is to lose yours.
In college, I was deeply involved in my sorority, so I enjoyed an active social group of 150 members and friends, who then kept me connected to a larger Greek circle at UT. I also maintained connections through my job as a fitness instructor, where I was able to share my passion with other like-minded fitness enthusiasts. Same for my martial arts niches, which I nurtured both on campus and also in the larger Knoxville area. I was an active member of a nearby yoga school, and enjoyed getting to know the teachers and students alongside me in the classes. And of course sometimes I went to class too, so over four years I also got to know my fellow biochemistry majors. These hobbies and activities are ultimately insignificant; what was important was that I found opportunities to share my interests with other people of all ages both on and off campus.
At the time, I did not think to value or place any unusual significance on the importance of these relationships. At the time, my thought process was rarely any deeper than, “I want to pursue this hobby because I enjoy it.” I liked yoga; I went to yoga class; the end. I viewed the friendships I formed as a happy, but accidental, byproduct.
I never was one of those people who needed to join a club or sport “to meet people.” Greek life alone kept me so socially saturated I could never dream of being bored on a Saturday. I didn’t need to meet people in college—I needed to perfect my jujitsu technique or crow pose.
When I moved abroad, my community downsized significantly. (I mean, obviously.) I’m one of maybe 40 or 50 English-speaking expats in my entire city here in Albania, and now, this is my tribe. You will never bond with someone closer than by being among a small number of foreign expats in a new country. United out of necessity over our shared language and culture, my coworkers and I became family almost overnight.
And while I am, of course, immensely grateful for them, I still lament my lack of community outreach opportunities beyond the workplace, especially compared to the thriving social ties I maintained last year.
It took me several months to realize what was happening. For my entire first semester, I simply missed my hobbies. (and I still do!). Being cut off from a yoga studio, martial arts dojo, and group fitness gym made me feel dissatisfied and restless. But after a few more months of nice, but fundamentally limited social opportunities, I realized I was missing something much deeper than a cool side hobby for my free time.
Interestingly, I subconsciously began to involve myself in more digital communities. I started to join online groups of travelers, bloggers, and photographers. In the absence of my ability to interact in person, I started exchanging ideas and swapping stories via emails and messages, forming pen-pal relationships, and connecting with other young women from all over the world who have embraced a similarly nomadic lifestyle. Slowly, subconsciously, I began to fill my social void by joining supportive online groups that inspired me.
I still struggle in Durres, not having a larger community to get involved in outside of work. I do look forward to moving to a thriving metropolitan city with a larger international awareness and lots of opportunities to make friends over shared interests. But in the meantime, I’m thankful for the internet in a way that I’ve never been before. The internet is my lifeline here; my only shot at fostering a sense of community in a sea of cultural and linguistic isolation. I’m tremendously grateful to have a chance to maintain online connections with like-minded individuals, right at my fingertips.
The ability to go join a local church or make a new friend at a pottery class is not something to be overlooked. Having access to this is an enormous privilege. If you want to know just how vital your community is, try losing it for a bit. You’ll never take it for granted again.
Originally published on my private blog, April 2015