In 1939, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) published a treatise entitled Life Together. Bonhoeffer argues that communities often disintegrate because we put too much emphasis on a “wishful image” of what community should feel like — an expectation that predictable and eventually collapses under the messy reality of actually spending time together. (Bonhoeffer 2004:35)
When the experience of living in regular proximity to other people does not match one’s “definite image” and idealized expectation, the consequence is a feeling of disillusionment. And if the expectation is not adequately reformulated, the social fabric itself begins to unravel. Thus, writes Bonhoeffer, “The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and community, the better for both.” (Ibid)
The greatest challenges (and detriments) for a community, are the expectations of its own members. As soon as you or I envision the notion of “community with others” we have an instantaneous picture in our minds that represents our definition. If other people fail to live up to this expectation, then the expectation itself becomes a wand of destruction, which resentfully and manipulatively tries to coerce others into its mould. Our idea of community destroys community. The more we love our idea, the greater the devastation will be.
As a pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer explained,
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. (Ibid 36)
It is not difficult for abstract ideals to undermine relationships. It is like embarking on a family vacation with the goal of making a special brand of memories together, or confusing the love of the honeymoon with the love of one’s spouse. The more specific our designs are for the futures and behaviour of other people, the more impossible it will be to coexist with them in genuine, mutual respect for who they already are.
In other words, it is quite possible to love our ideas about marriage, family, friendship, and community more than our spouse, children, friends, and neighbours. In fact, it might be far easier to love abstract ideas floating around in our heads than it is to love actual people who have their own ideas about how things should be. And the more in love we are with the abstract ideas, the more difficult it will be to accept and love the real thing.
If the deck of your social cards is being regularly reshuffled, it might be worth asking yourself if you care more about your expectations for other people than you do about the people themselves who seem to consistently fail them.
(An earlier version of this post appeared in Caesura Letters Volume VI: Great Explorations.)