August 17, 2019

The Power of Community

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Once when I picked up my son Leo, now 6 years old, from preschool, his teacher asked to have a word with me — in private. I immediately felt sick. The part of me that needs everything to be perfect was riddled with anxiety. What now, I thought? 

My son is wild, but also an old soul, always questioning everything he’s told. He’s always been … different. I remember his little voice, coming from the backseat of my car when he was 3: “My home is not here. My home is in the sky.” Sure, it was a little creepy. But it hurt me because I felt that it was true — that he wasn’t fully mine. Like I said, he’s always been different, and society isn’t always kind to those who are different.

So when his teacher asked to speak with me, I was certain it was another instance of him correcting someone’s grammar or talking about the angel of death again (in a secular school).

“A friend bit Leo today,” she said. 

Friends don’t bite friends, I thought to myself. I asked, “Who? Who bit him?”

“A friend,” she said, “but he’s OK.” This must have been my son’s cue to emerge from the playground, smiling and laughing, waving his bandaged arm. I said a few things about how biting was unacceptable, and then walked my smiling son out of the school. I wasn’t smiling.

I sat him on a bench. I was going to get to the bottom of this. And whoever bit him — that kid’s family was going to pay. In a split second I had rehearsed the threatening conversation I would have with the kid’s parents, the glares I would give the kid for the rest of his life. In my brief fantasy, I was like a 1950s gangster: “Why, I oughta …”

“Who bit you? Tell me now,” I pressured him, my face close to his. He looked puzzled at first, and then how he looked at me — it was like he was shaming me.

“Oh, it was just Ari! I’m OK, Mama!”

My ears began to ring. I was ready to let some unsuspecting parent of a psychopath kid who had bitten my son have it. But it was Ari who had bitten my son. Ari, one of his best friends and the child of two of our favorite parents at the school — a family with whom we had begun to forge a deep friendship.

I was deflated. But it was an important lesson about community and a critical moment of self-reflection for me. I realized that when we take the time to get to know others in our orbit — when we build community — we are less likely to respond to minor grievances with rage. We are more inclined to work through issues with people we consider one of our own than we are with people outside of our circles.

I realized that when we take the time to get to know others in our orbit — when we build community — we are less likely to respond to minor grievances with rage.

It’s like the difference between how we respond to someone in a store who almost runs into us with a cart, as opposed to how we react when someone cuts us off while driving. We see the face of the person pushing the cart, and when two shoppers nearly avoid bumping into each other, the usual response from each party is a smile and casual apology.

But on the road it’s a different story. We see vehicles, not faces, and so we get angry, perhaps shout an expletive or two. We don’t see other drivers as part of our community, but rather faceless entities that deserve neither patience nor understanding.

It’s been a few years since Ari bit Leo, but I think of it all the time, and it reminds me to reach out to people with whom I come into contact and to get to know them. It reminds me that the responsibility is mine, and it forces me to pause when I’m about to get angry about a comment on social media or about a story my son tells me about something an unknown child did or said at school. Being part of a community can feel good, but it’s about more than simply giving us a sense of belonging. In an increasingly divided society, it might literally be the thing that holds us together.

Monica Osborne is a scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”