Advice for Living in Community

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When you live in a dorm for three years, you have the opportunity to create relationships that may change your life. You also have the opportunity to spend hours alone in your room wondering why you are chronically ignored or misunderstood by your wingmates. It can go either way, really. Living in community can be very good or very bad.

My university emphasizes “intentional community.” I rolled my eyes at this phrase throughout my years there, but I’m starting to realize they were right to make this a hallmark of the college experience. Relationships are hard! You put forth time, effort, and often money without knowing if your attempts will be met with success.

During my freshman year, I didn’t understand this concept at all. I thought friendships should just happen. I ignored the two dozen women I was living with and funneled my attention into a relationship outside the dorm, but didn’t understand why I felt lonely in that space. As I have written about before, I had some big doubts about God my first year of college and felt completely isolated in that experience. It seemed that no one around me ever questioned God or felt that their faith was slipping away from them. And because I hadn’t put forth the effort to make friends when the stakes were low, I felt utterly alone. I couldn’t walk up to my wing mates and say, “Hi. I think maybe God isn’t who He says He is and it’s kind of messing up my whole life—do you want to be friends?”

I know now that I could have said that, and it would have been fine. At the time, I thought freshmen had a certain place on the social ladder and that place was not starting theological conversations. (Obviously, I was wrong about that.)

When I returned to the dorm for my second year of school, I was determined to make sure no one felt as alone as I did when I was a freshman. I still had faith issues to work through, but I wasn’t going to do it silently this time. Silence lets us drift apart, while speaking up pulls us together. I knew I couldn’t rely on someone else to make the first move toward connectedness—we’re all so scared of stepping out into honesty and not having others follow that we choose to stay separated, safe in our private worlds. But I believed that friendship was worth taking that risk.

Incoming freshman, eager sophomores, stressed out juniors, and checked out seniors, I want you all to have a better go at it than I did. Here are some pieces of advice I have for living in community.

  1. Throw out your expectations for those around you—for how their romantic relationships should look, for how they should study or spend their weekends, for how they should move around campus. Give them room to be them, to change and grow and evolve, to offend you, to ask for forgiveness, to reject your apologies when they aren’t sincere, to challenge your opinions, to grieve and to celebrate. People are wildly diverse; don’t assume you know the complexity of someone after a week or a month or a year.
  2. Ask questions, but only if you care about the answer. Coming in to my second year of college, one thing I was determined to be more honest about was my relationship with my boyfriend. So when people asked how we were doing, I wouldn’t automatically say, “Good.” Sometimes I would say, “We’re arguing right now” or “He hasn’t replied to any of my texts all day and it’s kind of annoying me.” People didn’t know what to do with these responses. They only asked the question to hear that we were doing fine, but I didn’t want to give people the impression that we had a perfect relationship. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.
  3. Speak the truth, even if it means not giving the answer someone wants to hear. Even if it means admitting your mistakes—sometimes hearing about those mistakes is just what someone else needs to feel accepted into the community you are already established in.
  4. Stay quiet when it is not your turn to talk. Listen and learn from the unique experiences of those around you. There is so much of the world you haven’t experienced, and I promise that if you listen to those around you, you will run into some new ideas that might just change the course of your life. I know it’s scary, but you will survive.

These are small gestures, but I think they make up a big part of the work of friendship. Give them a try this year as you adjust to new faces in the dorm or the apartments or wherever you are.

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