6.9. Authenticity in Communities

Maybe the single most important characteristic of a thriving community is authenticity.

Maybe the single most important characteristic of a thriving community is authenticity.

It’s among the most important, because in practice, it’s among the most rare.

There’s so much pressure on communities to police what’s said and done, to restrict the range of acceptable behaviors, in the name of maintaining order.

We all feel this pressure, even if we aren’t in charge.

We don’t want to cause trouble. We don’t want to weaken the bonds within the community. And we especially don’t want people to judge us, publicly shame us, or even kick us out of the group altogether.

All that pressure translates into the constant feeling that we have to perform for other people.

How we perform depends on who we’re with, what kind of setting or situation we’re in, and what the expectations are.

But unless we’re alone—or we’re with someone we completely trust—we’re always trying to present ourselves in a certain way, and influence people’s impressions of us.

This tendency is so pronounced that one of the most important sociological books ever written likened our social interactions in our everyday lives to actors on a stage, following certain scripts and playing certain roles.

There are some benefits that come from setting some rules and boundaries in our interactions, of course.

But it’s also pretty exhausting.

It makes us feel lonely, like hardly anybody really knows or understands us.

And it can also undermine communities, if it creates too much conflict between how people really feel and what they really want to do—and what actually ends up happening.

People will start feeling alienated, talking behind other people’s backs, and getting frustrated with the lack of authenticity.

After all, we don’t just join communities for their own sake. We join them because we have emotional and social needs that we want fulfilled.

How can we get those needs met when everybody’s faking it, when we can’t tell the difference between genuine or artificial feeling, when we’re forbidden from having the kind of interactions and experiences that create trust, understanding, and well-being?

Say what you want about church groups, or support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous—especially since, when they aren’t done correctly, they’re just as susceptible to posturing, phoniness, and snobbery as any group.

But when they are pulled off correctly, there’s a reason why those communities are among the tightest, most cohesive, and most fulfilling out there.

It’s because of the lack of judgment. The wholehearted and unconditional embrace of people as they truly are. The humility, and acceptance that we’re all flawed, and that’s okay—it doesn’t make us any less worthy of love and belonging.

It’s because they actively encourage authenticity, nonjudgment, and acceptance—in contrast to so many of our other communities out there.

We don’t have to just aspire to that in our religious communities. It’s something we can learn from and apply to communities of all kinds.

We still have to set some boundaries. But the fewer we set, the more authentic our communities will be.

And the more authentic our communities are…the more fulfilling they’ll be, for all of us.


This is the 101st in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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