A few months ago, a girl named Austen Dunn died suddenly from a brain aneurism. Austen was the kind of person everyone wants to know and wants to become. She was quietly and brilliantly talented, incredibly warm, and accepting of everyone who came into her path. She thought deeply and loved hard. Four weeks before she passed, I grabbed lunch with Austen and her best friend in a small coffee shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we talked about mental health and her aspirations to become a therapist. The world lost a wonderful human.
One of the things Austen was passionate about was the concept of communitas. You can watch a documentary she made on the idea here, and essentially the notion behind communitas is that shared experiences is how we build connections with others.
I’ve been thinking about communitas ever since Austen’s passing. I’ve been wondering what it means for me as I hold the people around me a little tighter in the wake of her death.What does connection mean? What does wholeness in our personal relationships and in ourselves look like?
So far, what I’ve come up with is this: I need to cherish the people who mean the most to me every single day, forming deep and meaningful relationships based on shared experiences and unconditional love. I need to celebrate them in their successes and mourn with them in their lowest points. I need to be their shoulder and allow them to see the deepest ugliest parts of me.
Because relationships and connectedness is what makes the world go ’round. Seeing others and being seen in our most vulnerable, fleshy states in a way that is unconditionally loving is how we reach wholeness.
There’s a term in social work theory called unconditional positive regard. It’s the notion that to be a successful therapist, the client must feel that the therapist accepts them and views them with respect and love no matter what the client says or does. And the reason that unconditional positive regard is so important is that it’s the cornerstone of healing: when the client feels fully seen and fully heard, and he or she is still seen as a human being worthy of acceptance, a sense of wholeness is reached.
We build relationships with others when we share experiences with them, form connections with them, love them without hesitation or restraint, and allow them to love us right back. In this we become whole.
And as a way of reaching this state of wholeness, I need to communicate my love for my friends and family members who touch my life every day. So I’ve created a challenge for myself to help me cherish and build my relationships with my loved ones. If you are thinking about these things too, you’re welcome to join me!
My personal guidelines for building and celebrating my relationships:
- Make new memories with loved ones all the time. After we graduated from high school and went away to college, a friend told me he continues to build his relationships with his high school friends by making new memories with them. If they weren’t going out on adventures together and sharing new experiences whenever they were home on breaks, all they would be able to talk about when they got together was the past. They’d have nothing new to discuss because all they had in common were previous memories they’d made. Continued connection means experiencing new things together.
- Express love constantly and explicitly. Here’s a challenge: stop what you’re doing and call someone you care about right now. Tell them what they mean to you and why you care about them. There are no regrets when people know they are loved. Don’t let the opportunity pass to celebrate your relationships.
- Allow yourself to be seen. Connection isn’t a one-way street. In order to grow deeper, we have to go deeper. We have to show our true selves – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And when mutual unconditional acceptance is established, a sense of freedom is attained.
Austen’s memory is etched into my mind for the rest of my life. Her impact reverberates. Thanks for your wisdom on communitas, love, and relationships. I’ll never forget it.
How are you building connections with people in a meaningful way?
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