Communities, like any civilization or organization, are born, live, and fade. To focus on how communities live, one must consider how they breathe.
As persons enter a community, they are drawn in with long, life-giving breath. The lungs of gathering fill and persons interact intensely, vibrantly, like tiny little oxygen molecules do their tiny dance. And just when it seems like the lungs of gathering can’t hold a single more person, yet another is breathed in, and another, and another.
Communities also breathe out. Persons leave gatherings for many reasons. Time, distance, disagreement, misunderstanding, shift in passion, unplanned or uncontrollable disruption. When a community breathes out it doesn’t mean it’s dead. When a community is at its peak capacity and starts the slow leak or even the blustering gale scattering its members, it can feel like death because it isn’t “what it used to be.”
But that’s how community works.
We are breathed in, we are breathed out. When we interact and are present, we breathe in, and when we fall out of practice, we breathe out.
I thought about this quite a bit when my friend, TC, passed away last Wednesday. I’d only met him in person once in 2009 at the Chicago Improv Festival. He and I were in several social groups during the festival weekend but somehow we found ourselves alone splitting a deep dish pizza at Giovanni’s. We didn’t talk about improv, improv, improv as so many conversations at these sorts of gatherings turn out to be; we talked about life. We’d known each other for years through an online improv message board, YESand, and we were (and still are) Facebook friends. YESand breathed us in but I would offer that the experience at Giovanni’s breathed us in deeper. As time and distance came between us, we breathed out. But the connection? That doesn’t go away.
On one of his final days in this world, TC breathed in over 100 persons into his hospital room to laugh and cry and celebrate his life. This may seem like a tall tale but improvisers are not well known for their boundaries and while I was not there I would not be surprised if 100 was an underestimate. It was a living wake. And there was much breathing. Facebook saw much breathing, too, as many shared about their experiences with him, took on a shared avatar / profile photo, wished him well on the next step of his journey, prayed for him and those who remain here and love him dearly.
I’m reminded, now, of the heaving that comes with crying. Big breathes. In. Out.
In Christianity, the aspect of the Holy Trinity known as the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as “Sustainer.” I think it no coincidence that one of the Biblical images of the Holy Spirit is ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek: both mean “wind,” “spirit,” and “breath.”
How then, are we as community sustained?
As TC breathed out a final time, several communities of persons who knew him were breathed in. Some of these communities have been breathing in and out together for a long time, a steady time, the lungs well-exercised and in-tune. Other communities’ lungs are a little rusty and the breathing in takes more effort. But it’s there. The connections don’t go away. As for the initial way TC and I (and many) were drawn in together, YESand had its time and place of breathing in and peaking. And slowly but surely, as those who were there follow different life passions, convene less often, enter different sorts of relationships, and die, the community dies. But there is still much more life to be had. We are still connected. Something is still sustained.
And in that, we keep breathing.