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Why Community is a Stretchy Sweater Not a Straightjacket

By Joyce Lee

Why Community is a Stretchy Sweater, Not a Straightjacket

By Joyce Lee


“You wanna come over and nap?” 


These were the words I never thought I’d consider for a Saturday afternoon activity from those I considered my “community”.  


In this day and age, the word “community” may tend to bring with it inward groans or skeptic eyebrow raises. It’s a phrase we hear tossed around in well-meaning circles, sometimes with connotations of warm cosy campers sitting in a circle and going “kumbaya”. But perhaps, through my life experiences, I have come to realise community shouldn’t ever be “defined”. 


“Community” for the first 18 years of my life meant conforming to a bunch of rigid rules, saying the right things, feigning enthusiasm for a line-up of hype programmes but without really having the conviction for why I was there. 


At 19, it then evolved into VIP guest lists, packed weekend schedules with the cool crowd or secretly jet-setting to overseas raves on the beaches of Thailand. 


My 21st birthday was the perfect storm - I felt like I was trying to make everyone feel comfortable while exhausting myself, reflecting the daily dilemma that I faced being a chameleon and having to switch across multiple personalities to various groups. 


At 26, submerged into my first job and on the brink of a breakup, I started spiraling into a bit of an existential crisis… who was I really? Was I just a sum of many facets, force-fitted together in a mishmash? I wondered if there was ever a chance of still finding “life-long” friends who went beyond a season or convenience - who could love and celebrate every contradicting facet of who i was. 


But it was also then that I decided to just be transparent - it was just too tiring being so many things to so many people.


A handful of courageous, free-spirited friends entered my life - and have since become midwives to birth the impossible dreams in my heart. We’ve only known each other for a couple of years, but will fiercely guard each others’ best interest (such as napping!) with no questions asked. 


And now, at 29 and a business owner of a small team, I’ve come to realise that “community” isn’t just something that I can just passively consume on the side-lines. It needs to be created - with much tender, loving care - as is cultivating any garden with lots of attention, watering and sunshine to each individual plant. Community needs plenty of intentional moments to germinate, to start taking root before the fruits start to show. But it is always, always worth it. 

Maybe you’re in transition. Maybe the group that you used to hang out with have disbanded. Maybe they were all your exes’ friends. Maybe you’ve been turned off by well-meaning, but ill-timed requests by your super-connector friends who want to link you up with various communities they feel they can link you up with. 

It also often seems shoved upon us when we’re not ready. So what is it actually?

What does a “Healthy” Community look like? 


  1. They don’t all have to see or think like you do.  

It’s most natural to gravitate towards those with common interests - such as loving Liverpool, raving about the latest cold brew coffee or kpop songs … but I’ve come to realise that many of these are transient and not necessary. Just because you know them the longest - doesn’t mean they have to be “the closest”  by default. Sometimes, it’s more about how much in-common you WANT to have in the future - and how much of a space you want to give their voice in your future.  

Community is not meant to be a straight jacket, but a stretchy sweater that allows and gives you room to CHANGE. 

    2.It holds space for your journey, yet holds you accountable to your dreams. 

A healthy community keeps you accountable, but isn’t conditional or transactional. It allows you to just BE, yet holds space for your journey. Change should never be imposed, but inspired - based on the lives of those in the community that you aspire towards. It pushes you towards the version of yourself that you want to be. It reminds you of the brief moments that you could see yourself apart from your pain, and gently paints that picture of hope for you, over and over again. 

    3.It’s not a reservoir - but a river. 

We desire permanence and predictability, but sometimes…  communities are transient, and they evolve too. Sometimes, they could be your colleagues, classmates, or fellow work-out buddies. Sometimes it could just be that ONE person you could click with at a networking event. Sometimes, a big community gathering is just a funnel to deeper relationships with two or three. Sometimes, maybe we just need to go where it flows. 

    4.Your absence is felt, but is not frowned upon. 

Like relationships, community does take intentionality and investing one’s time and energies. Your absence should matter, but not bother. That said, a healthy community should be able to function even if you’re not there. While there shouldn’t be a pressure for you to have to turn up, a lot of times, showing up is all we need. 

   5. It is experienced, not taught. 

I experienced what a radically accepting community could be like first-hand, and told myself that one day, I’d like to re-create it. But i’ve come to realise there’s no formula for community -  because it’s as unique as the individuals that comprise it. And that cannot be taught, but only caught. 

Published on 21/12/2020

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