Self in Community
According to Strengths Quest, a popular personality test for college students, one of my top strengths is Adaptability. And it shows. Not only can I be strangely calm in the midst of uncontrollable chaos (a helpful trait as a college student), but I have also found that I will take on the traits of those around me. Suddenly I find myself stealing my roommates’ phrases, or mimicking the gestures and expressions of my friends and family. The more I think about it, the more I realize that nearly every little mannerism I do or say I have borrowed from someone at one point or another.
The more I’ve considered this topic of “self,” the more I have been overwhelmed by the questions that arise from such self-analysis. What aspect of myself is integral to my being, rather than being merely an adaptation to a particular situation? Most importantly, how do I remain true to my self while living and interacting within a community?
I keep thinking about the summer I went to South Africa. Amidst the hut-to-hut evangelism and missionary work, there was a day in which I found myself rolling around in the dirt with all of the refugee children. This was the same dirt I saw the kids peeing and bleeding in— a composite of questionable trash and unpleasant smells. But we were singing their favorite bible school song, and that meant dropping down and rolling on that ground. Somehow, by being a part of that community, I became more of myself. Overcoming my initial hesitations and misgivings, I embraced a shared joy and gladness that was more integral to my being than my learned etiquette on cleanliness. I was more than just a wealthy outsider infiltrating their village; I was, and am, a person who desired to share in the joy of others.
It was only through that shared experience as a community that I came to realize that I don’t care if I get dirty or act undignified. Through further reflection and experience I have concluded that personal comfort and preference are less integral to my being than is my desire to serve others. How could’ve I known that about myself except through community?
But that’s the paradox. It is through community that I am learning to find my true self, the self that looks ever more like Christ. The old self, the one that is self-absorbed, shallow, and manipulative, while easy to slip into, does not make me feel whole like when I am serving others— making dinner for my housemates or praying with my friends.
However, the people in our communities are not always so easy to love. Sometimes I need the encouragement and model of others to know how to reach those who seem unreachable.
Like the family of the young man who was killed by the cops in my hometown. There was uproar from the city upon his death, and a rehashing of the hatred between the poor neighborhoods and the local police. My brother took me to the grocery store where I picked out a single flower, clutching it in my hand as we drove into the inner city and parked across from the small house. I couldn’t help but stare at the bullet holes in the walls, at the expressionless faces, at the shrine of candles. I wanted to be anywhere but there. But my brother walked up to the young man’s mother and talked to her, so I did my part, giving her the flower and whispering the only words I could think to say: “I’m sorry.”
I would have preferred to ignore the fact that I was a member of this same city that is full of injustice, of murders and bribery and violence. Who wouldn’t want to escape back into the safe little communities of family or church or school, ignoring the other ones closer in proximity but more difficult and uncomfortable? But God did not call us to live in safe communities. In fact, it was only in those more “unsafe” ones that I grew, and came to understand the real Lauren Berg, the one that is less of me and more of Christ.
It is only with the presence of others that my adaptability becomes a strength. The qualities I strive to adopt, the ones that reflect Christ and his love, are the ones I am modeling off the people and communities in which I find myself.
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