Is it possible to have the kind of ideal community as described by Nelson Mandela?
I am afraid not. And for good reasons, too.
Suppose that there was an ideal community. Your or my presence would ruin it because none of us are perfect. We are all broken in some way, living in a broken world driven by selfishness, greed, and pride.
Present-day South Africa is an example (Cele, 2023). It is a far cry from Mandela’s ideal, in spite of his lifelong efforts and South Africa’s love and respect for the man.
Here is another idealistic view of a community, as proposed by Jean Vanier.
Vanier was the founder of Ark communities (Hattrup, 2019). He is honoured internationally as a savior of people with disabilities (The Banner, 2019). Unfortunately, shortly after his death in 2019, reports began to surface about his sexual abuse of women. Here is the latest report (Tadié, 2023):
A new independent report commissioned by L’Arche International and released on its website Jan. 30 has shed light on the magnitude of psychological and sexual abuse committed by its famous founder, Jean Vanier, who died in 2019.
Is there any hope of building a free and loving community, given our fallen nature and tendency to act on our desires for power, wealth, fame, and sex? Who can fathom the heart of darkness? This article will introduce four interrelated inconvenient truths for community building, based on my lifelong research and personal experience.
First: Be the change you want to see in the group
Recently, a middle-aged woman sought my help. She wanted me to help her live a more meaningful life because she, at the time, felt that her life was empty, lonely, and boring. She was not the only one who sought my guidance regarding existential issues. The main difference is that she was resistant to making any changes and refused to consider any of my suggestions; she only wanted me to help her find the ideal group so that she could join so that she could be happy again:
All I want is a group that care for me, pays attention to me, and lifts up my spirit. I have been with a Bible study group for more than 20 years, but they only preach; they don’t walk the talk. For example, they didn’t even visit their aging parents in China after the pandemic.
In addition, she told me that she did not want to read any book or listen to any preaching; she only wanted me to hold her hand and lead her to an ideal loving and caring group. It is human nature to need love and attention, but it cannot be one-sided. We may have to care for others first. Who wants to be friends with someone who is judgmental and narcissistic? Instead of complaining about all the different groups she had joined, she needed to be the change she wanted to see in the group. That is challenging but necessary.
Second: Do not ask what you can get from life, but ask what life demands from you
In real life, we often have to do what we don’t like or what is beyond our comfort zone. The demand for our service from changing circumstances may be contrary to our initial career planning or life crafting (Chen et al., 2022).
We may feel inadequate for the demands from life, but necessity and moral obligations may require us to rise to the challenge.
Ironically, by temperament and by profession, I enjoy working alone as a researcher and as a clinician. I hate long unproductive meetings, loud crowds, and doing small talks with strangers. In addition, I dislike public speaking; I used to stutter and public speaking in English with a Chinese accent makes the task even more daunting.
In spite of all my shortcomings, and my natural aversion to lead any group, I have been a leader in community building for most of my adult life.
God must have a sense of humor; he seems to delight in calling the weak to confound the strong. He has given me assignments which are way beyond my comfort zone, and beyond my area and my innate competence.
During my darkest hours in struggling with my impossible assignments, I even questioned whether God was playing a cruel joke on me. But deep down, I believe that God knows me better than myself.
Over the years, in spite of my initial reluctance, protest, and feeling like a failure, I have been successful in starting churches, non-profits, and community projects such as Neighbours Together in Vancouver, settling the Boat People from Vietnam in Peterborough, and the Meaningful Living Meetup in Toronto. I have also been successful at preaching, teaching, and leading academic departments.
These assignments were very painful , and were accompanied by feelings of not being understood or appreciated. But, in the end, I have the deep satisfaction that my self-sacrifice and suffering have yielded fruits beyond my expectations. For example, the first Toronto Gospel Church I founded in 1963 has already multiplied into several other churches. Another surprise is that in spite of these time-consuming community involvements, my research career has not suffered much.
Third: We are all interconnected, rather than solitary agents
The statement to the right was penned by me about two decades ago, but I still endorse it because this is the mechanism for implementing the first inconvenient truth of community building.
Let the truth be told that we are not self-contained individuals clothed in skin. It is an illusion based on our ignorance. We can’t survive without receiving help from others. When we get very old, we may even need others to bathe us and change us.
The truth is that we are all inescapably interconnected like our anatomy. We all need each other. Our head cannot tell our feet that they are not important. You will find out how important your lowly feet can be when you can no longer walk.
Self-awareness has been touted as an important soft skill for success in life (Higgins, 2023), but self- awareness needs to include awareness of our interdependence. Unless we are awakened to this reality, we will not function well, and we will not find meaning in our lives. The following quote expresses this truth eloquently.
“No man is an island entire of itself,” said John Donne. Love is the glue, and love is the greatest force in life. Love means accepting others as they are, forgive others indefinitely, and willing to sacrifice for others (Wong & Mayer, 2023)
Yes, no one can experience meaning in life without relationships. One needs to go beyond oneself and reorient towards others in order to experience meaning in life, as emphasized by Viktor Frankl repeatedly in his writings on the need for self-transcendence (Frankl, 1946/1985). The following quote was from one of my older publications, but it conveys the same truth:
We are more likely to experience meaning in life when we intentionally exercise the intelligent use of freedom and responsibility to achieve three major interrelated purposes: to survive, to fulfil one’s potential, and to serve something greater than oneself, all within a relational context and without violating any moral or ethical constraints.
Indeed, life is meaningful to the extent it is related to someone greater or more important than us and related to God or the Creator of all human beings.
I propose that the three main attributes of human nature consist of agency, communion (or community), and spirituality. This tripartite model holds true for all people in all cultures and all eras.
When I was teaching at York University, the late Prof. David Bakan was my best friend and strongest supporter in the psychology department. He often invited me to his office for some academic discussions about human suffering and human nature. To him, agency does not exist alone without involving communion. His dialectical theory of agency and communion had considerable influence on my development of PP 2.0.
Like him, I believe that, ultimately, human experiences and human wellbeing can be best understood in terms of achieving dialectical balance between agency (self) and communion (others) and spirituality (faith in God or some higher power). Spirituality may be the most important dimension that connects us with all things, both visible and invisible, both the highest heights and the lowest depths (Wong, 2023).
That is why I propose that the way to become your best self is, paradoxically, to become more selfless, more oriented towards others (Wong, 2016). Self-transcendence may sound counter-intuitive in an individualistic consumer society, but at a deeper level you need to lose yourself in order to find yourself, your community, and your spiritual union.
Fourth: Seek to serve rather than to be served
My fourth inconvenient truth provides a framework for the first three. Ultimately, if you want to have more positive impact on the group, and receive more love and support from the group, you need to learn to become a servant first and a good leader second.
A culture of servant leadership is God’s design for families and groups as taught by Jesus: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a random for many “(Matthew 20:28 NIV). This was later popularized by Robert Greenleaf (Greenleaf, 2002).
Here are my seven Cs for effective servant leadership:
- Compassion for others and for self
- Caring for the needs and wellbeing of those you serve
- Competence in what you do
- Character in good times and bad
- Courage to do what is right and take the necessary risks to fulfill your dream
- Commitment to the task and to the group, and
- Clarity in communicating with other stakeholders about your vision, purpose, and intentions.
Try to develop these seven attributes of servant leadership. You will be able to avoid a lot of unnecessary conflicts due to egotistic insecurities and pride.
In my most recent publication on servant leadership (Wong et al., 2022), I suggest that “[I]n today’s climate, servant leadership represents the highest ideal for moral and selfless leadership for the greater good; therefore, even though it is difficult to implement, society is still better served when we aim at this ideal for leadership and good work.”
The beloved television program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is an example of a good community led by a servant leader. It is for all people, with love, respect, and humility. I want to end this essay with this quote from Mr. Rogers. By the way, he was an ordained Christian minister (Presbyterian Historical Society, 2013) and his teachings are based on basic Christian values. But he is still able to accept and love all people, regardless of their race and religion. May we all learn from him in our struggles in serving and loving others they way they are.
My final though is that anything worth having or worth doing demands blood, sweat, and tears. I have fought a good fight; I have run my race.
As an introvert, I still remain a loner at heart. As a sensitive person, I still remain a man of sorrow, as I look deeply at all the suffering around me. But I know that I have not fought and suffered in vain in order to make this a world better place for our children and grandchildren.
Cele, S. (2023, June 16). Africa’s richest city is crumbling under chaos and corruption. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-06-16/south-africa-s-crime-chaos-and-corruption-make-it-look-like-a-failed-state?utm_campaign=news&utm_medium=bd&utm_source=applenews
Chen, S., van der Meij, L., van Zyl, L. E., & Demerouti, E. (2022). The Life Crafting Scale: Development and validation of a multi-dimensional meaning-making measure. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 795686. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.795686
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Washington Square Press. (First published in 1946)
Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press.
Hattrup, K. N. (2019, May 10). What are the L’Arche Communities founded by Jean Vanier? Aleteia. https://aleteia.org/2019/05/10/what-are-the-larche-communities-founded-by-jean-vanier/
Higgins, M. (2023, March 28). A CEO shares the 5 toxic personality types he sees ‘over and over’ again—‘I stay far away.’ CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/28/ceo-and-founder-shares-toxic-personalities-he-avoids-at-all-costs-and-signs-to-watch-for.html
Presbyterian Historical Society. (2013, February 11). Remembering Mr. Rogers. https://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/remembering-mr-rogers
Tadié, S. (2023, February 1). New report details abuses of L’Arche founder. Catholic News Agency. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/253514/new-report-details-abuses-of-l-arche-founder/
The Banner. (2019, May 9). ‘Intrinsically worthy’: Jean Vanier’s legacy to people with disabilities. https://www.thebanner.org/news/2019/05/intrinsically-worthy-jean-vanier-s-legacy-to-people-with-disabilities/
Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Self-transcendence: A paradoxical way to become your best. International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology, 6(1). https://www.meaning.ca/ijepp-article/vol6-no1/self-transcendence-a-paradoxical-way-to-become-your-best/
Wong, P. T. P. (2023). Spiritual-existential wellbeing (SEW): The faith-hope-love model of mental health and total wellbeing. International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology, 12(1). https://www.meaning.ca/ijepp-article/vol12-no1/spiritual-existential-wellbeing/
Wong, P. T. P., & Mayer, C.-H. (2023). The meaning of love and its bittersweet nature. International Review of Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540261.2023.2173001
Wong, P. T. P., Page, T., & Cheung, T. (2022). A self-transcendence model of servant leadership. In S. Dhiman & G. Roberts (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Servant Leadership (pp. 1-26). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-69802-7_58-1