What is “Community”?

There are several definitions applicable to the word ‘community’ and they all mean something different from each other. Community is a group of people sharing an environment or characteristic or interest together, ie. in a village, or a group home, or a school or church. Everyone works separately but also with an eye toward common ground together, things one can do personally that might benefit others in some way, such as planting a beautiful garden or playing music that impacts on the emotions of others.

As members of community, people don’t just want to lay bricks, they want to build a cathedral.”1

Community is also a feeling of fellowship, such as that encountered in self-help groups, clubs, organizations. We feel fellowship with others who are just like us, in many ways, and tend to deny or ignore fellowship with those who are unlike us.

There is no greater suffering than the feeling of being adrift, alone, isolated, shunned or banished. It is built right into our DNA that we need the fellowship of others to survive and thrive. “… humans have developed psychological mechanisms to be sensitive to the signs of shunning. They seek to conform to their group and avoid non-conformist behaviors that are likely to get them shunned. Also, they experience psychological pain when they’re shunned. The pain that people experience upon being shunned has been termed ‘social pain’. And social pain often hurts even more than physical or emotional pain, as there is no medication to relieve it other than being accepted back. “Physical pain and social pain are experienced as the same in our brains.”2

“Rejection actually fires up a pain response in the brain!” explains Mark R. Leary, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center at Duke University, where he researches human emotions and social motivations.

What makes the bite in rejection so particularly gnarly may be because it fires up some of the same pain signals in the brain that get involved when we stub our toe or throw out our back

Leary defines rejection as when we perceive our relational value (how much others value their relationship with us) drops below some desired threshold. What makes the bite in rejection so particularly gnarly may be because it fires up some of the same pain signals in the brain that get involved when we stub our toe or throw out our back, Leary explains.3 It is our ‘lizard’ brain in action.

“The problem is that we tend to face more opportunities to be rejected than ever before in human history thanks to technology like social media and the Internet. And even though there’s still an interpersonal dynamic, most of the online and real-life rejections most of us face today don’t threaten our survival so much as they did thousands of years ago” Leary says. But, we’re still wired to react as though they do. “Our brains don’t easily tell the difference between rejections that matter and those that don’t unless we consciously think about it and override our automatic reactions,” Leary says.” 4

Most of us have experienced both fellowships, and being shunned, by our communities. “Shunning is basically a group’s attempt to protect and preserve itself. Ancestral human groups had to protect themselves from other human groups and predators. The stronger and more united a human group was, the better it could protect itself. 5

“People who look different and belong to groups different from one’s own are stigmatized, discredited, and shamed.”

So how do we not give in to the desire to basically ignore others who are not enough like us? “People who look different and belong to groups different from one’s own are stigmatized, discredited, and shamed,” (such as those with different genetic features like skin colour, or who speak a different language, or have access to resources we do not.)6

As a senior in Canada, I have had the opportunity to live in several different types of communities, from a small town of 200, to a large metropolis city of millions. I know now once we close our doors to our own personal and private space, we are alone, but knowing there is someone else around to assist with questions, needs, or issues helps us feel community. I have experienced shared “roommate” living, eco-living, and even an 800-member commune as a child. When I arrived home from school, I KNEW someone helpful would be around to assist with homework, a meal, and even with growing up with 5 siblings, my world literally exploded with so many kids. I even shared a dormitory at our communal farm in Orangeville with over 40 kids, ranging in age from 4 to 12. As a kid, I was really living my best life there. I had parents, I had elders, I had friends, siblings, I had people, when I needed people. I still maintain friendships with many of these original communities, even after 50 plus years.

Currently, at 64, my world has dwindled to very few people in total, mainly due to my own personal circumstances, on top of the pandemic. I am not as mobile as I used to be, and many of my friends have had to move out of Toronto to escape the pressures of working and surviving during a pandemic. I have been a sole caregiver for my elderly father, and that has preoccupied my focus and energy, and left me feeling very isolated, for the past 5 years.

But now, as we all age, we find a real hunger and need for people again in our own hearts. How do we find them? How and where do we fit in?

  1. Identify the group that you want to fit in with – for SWLT, this would be women, or those who self-identify as women, over the age of 55.
  2. Be mindful of the social norms of the group, but also put your own spin on your own version of ‘normal.’
  3. Observe your group and find out what they value most. Some might appreciate humour, or loyalty, or transparency, others might prefer quiet and intense focus. Then offer that if you have the capacity and ability to do so. Be honest in your actions and interactions. If something feels wrong to you, don’t do it.
  4. Keep the focus on the members of the group. Don’t make conversations always and ONLY about you – listen well, and empathetically to their stories. Make them the centre of your attention, even just for a few minutes. Do not use your voice to cancel out the voice of another. Give others space and support to be heard. Understand your own privilege and sense of entitlement.
  5. Being different is just as natural as wanting to fit in. Trying to satisfy one by ignoring the other will most likely have bad consequences, so find a good balance for yourself. Embrace what makes you different as well as what makes you similar.
  6. Look to others who can supply the opposite of what you can bring. Perhaps you are the tech expert, or you know how to tap into resources that others cannot access. Reward others for their contributions, and don’t maintain a balance sheet for your own contributions.
  7. Build your community by staying in touch with people—even if you must accomplish it virtually. Invest time and energy in maintaining your bonds. Send a quick note to someone you haven’t seen in a while or call a distant acquaintance. CONNECT with others.
  8. The most effective communities support members who take risks, try new things, and go out on limbs to create and innovate. Effective communities also embrace conflict and diversity—working through differences of opinion and making space for civil discourse and the learning that occurs from appreciating multiple points of view. Focus on gratitude, humility, work together for shared goals, and give daily compliments or shout outs to members of your community for positive actions. Find a common project, ie. helping at a food bank or outreach to other seniors.

We decide if we like someone within 3 second.7

When meeting new potential homemates, remember these facts:

  • People make assumptions about your personality based on a quick scan of your clothes and general appearance.
  • They also make inferences on how successful you are based on what you’re wearing, and how aggressive you are based on the shape of your face. 
  • People judge how much they should trust another person after only just meeting them.

It may be in your best interest to delay making these split-second assumptions when meeting new homemates, as we are often inaccurately assessing features and other information to guide us. There is an inherent power imbalance and bias when accepting others to our community, and this should be reviewed and addressed. Getting to know others, really knowing them, takes time, conversations, laughs, cries, and trust. The ones you share community with are not always the ones that come up as your most obvious choices. Lean into this observation. Embrace those who are different.

This is what community is about.


  3. Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science302(5643), 290-292.
  6. being-shunned/

3 replies on “What is “Community”?”

This is a very thought-provoking piece. Humans are definitely a social species, and we suffer when we lack social connection. Changing circumstances can require that we start from scratch in building a new community to live in.