Parched for Community

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By Katie Bergman

A_Katie-750Through bleary eyes I watched the beaten-up blue Tempo roll out of the parking lot and point southward. As two sets of hands waved their bittersweet goodbyes from rolled-down windows, there was only word on my mind: community.

I needed community.

Standing at a crossroads—both literally and metaphorically—I could feel my heart being pulled in a million contrasting directions. Part of me stubbornly wanted to continue pursuing the venturesome life of a humanitarian expatriate, working deep in the trenches of human trafficking prevention across international borders.  

But as I watched my friends merge into an engulfment of traffic and disappear into a blazing California sunrise, the other part of me couldn’t remember why I had uprooted myself to begin with. For the first time, my nomadic lifestyle and its series of six-month job contracts and non-permanent living situations, along with temporary friendships and an endless stream of goodbyes, all seemed more exhausting than appealing.

Mechanically, I found myself walking down the street to an orange brick café tucked away in a corner of Little Italy. During my short-term stay in San Diego, the café had compelled me daily into its inviting quarters.

Every time, the same barista would warmly greet me and ask if I wanted one or two additional shots of espresso today—as if it was non-optional to consume caffeine in regular quantities. But no matter how strong and robust the coffee was, or how beautiful the rise and fall of Italian opera played softly in the background, or how much the atmosphere of the café took me back to my travels in Italy, it wasn’t the espresso that kept drawing me back in.

Even before I’d stepped foot into the café, I heard the sing-song voice of the same brown-eyed, bubbly barista—her voice punctuated by a rich Italian accent—hollering, “Bonjourno, Katie!”

She knew my name.

After seven years, the draining nature of my humanitarian work and the anonymity of my travels had finally caught up with me. I was as desperate for consistent human connection as much as the city of San Diego was desperate for rain in its drought.

As grinding espresso machines and Pavarotti’s operatic tenor competed for attention in the background of the café, I wondered at what point my life became more about operating in survival mode rather than living joyously. 

Hopping from country to country, from one humanitarian crisis to the next had originally seemed to be the perfect blend of adventure and altruism. Over time, however, most of my immediate influencing factors—from my supervisors to my faith background, from my social justice training to my own stubborn unwillingness to be vulnerable—had construed a sick sort of nobility out of missional self-sacrifice.  

Did my worth come from trying to become a hero—or was my worth inherent as a human, created carefully and uniquely for the purpose to love and be loved? 

I wondered these things between sips of a cappuccino, alone and confused, as hazy streams of California sunshine filtered through the window and drew me closer towards a breakthrough. 

My embittering habit of prioritizing the cause of my work before the reality of my human needs had left me so depleted, so wilted. 

I was tired of forever farewells, tired of the ache of anonymity, tired of the weariness from wandering. So tired that the sight of hands waving goodbye from an old blue Tempo, or the simple moment of a familiar face greeting me by name in an urban café was enough to break me down into pieces.

All the fragmented memories of seasons I’d spent alone began haunting me at once: that summer I lived in a cabin nearly in total seclusion. Those two months I backpacked solo through Eastern Europe. The arduous days I spent tree planting, completely sequestered from human contact. The time I lived in an empty, cockroach-infested house during nearly a year of humanitarian work in Southeast Asia …

Such austere and isolated conditions surely served their own purpose, creating a platform for my character to be refined, my mind to be challenged, and my soul to learn how to persevere in spite of physical injury, emotional distress, and spiritual chaos.  But these eras of solitude were not moments of flourishing.  

The more I pondered, the more I realized my moments of wholeheartedly flourishing were always experienced in community.  

It was she and I sharing the secrets of our kindred souls while collecting sea glass along an abandoned beach.

It was the moment of bonding when he and I realized we shared more common gifts and burdens than we ever imagined at first glance.

It was the endless stream of laughter and tears as my best friend and I camped our way through Canada, and the wordless exchange of smiles as my sister and I stood in the middle of the snow-capped Alps.

Every communal meal, every porch swing conversation, every summer of strumming guitars while encircling campfires with friends who made imprints on our hearts—these were the moments I came alive. These were the moments where hurt could be converted into healing, loneliness replaced by communion, and disappointment transformed into hope.

That’s when it hit me: it’s possible to survive in isolation,  but it’s an even greater possibility to thrive in community.

I had traveled the world, wondering when community would finally find me. I’m now realizing it’s up to me to create community.

When I left San Diego, I returned to my home in Canada with a new plan. It wasn’t to push harder, move faster, or work longer—it was to love fearlessly, speak honestly, and bond more. It was to candidly ask for help and be receptive to other people’s care. It was to live out Caedmon’s words of forging connections with each person in sincere intention to “cradle a sense of wonder in their life, to honour the heard-earned wisdom of their sufferings, to waken their joy … [and say] ‘I know—I understand.’” 

For me, community started sharing the raw, unedited version of my story with those I had always tried to convince I was invincible. I spoke my loneliness and admitted my struggles—as a humanitarian, as a people-pleaser, as a lonely human being seeking belonging.  

And instead of being rejected for disclosing my imperfections, I was greeted by an outpouring of grace: from loving phone calls, prayers, and financial gifts to friends driving twenty hours round-trip to come visit me when I was too fatigued to string together a coherent sentence. Before I finally found a place to settle down, people warmly opened up their homes to me indefinitely. I asked for support, and I received it—abundantly. 

Most of all, reaching out to others in vulnerability allowed others to reach back, too. Finally being the one to initiate talking about my struggles meant other people began sharing their own harrowing stories.

Open dialogue created the grounds to cut straight to honest conversations of grief and loss, mental health and burnout, fear and disillusionment. More and more, I began experiencing those chill-giving, “me, too” moments of solidarity. 

When I admitted both to others and to myself that I could no longer sustain a life within a self-constructed vacuum, I could finally be freed from the expectation of perfection. I could strip away the façade of being “unshakeable.” I could stop trying to be a hero and simply be a human.

When I saw tears not as a sign of weakness but grounds for bonding, we could collectively find a restorative perspective on our experiences of suffering. 

When I allowed myself the luxury of lingering, I could make a long-term commitment to re-invest all I’d learned overseas into social justice issues in my own country. 

When I dipped into the humility of sharing my deepest musings and aspirations in the safe presence of friends, even my most fragmented thoughts could develop into innovative ideas and dreams put into motion by their support and mentorship.

Yes, adamantly abiding by absolute self-sufficiency helped to substantiate my tenacity. It took strength to live in resilient independence—yet it took courage to live abundantly in community with others.

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About Katie:

Katie Bergman Author PhotoMy name is Katie. I collect books and journals and memories of sunrises. I thrive on challenges, I love a good playlist, and I have a zeal for backpacking, road trips, and other travel adventures. I couldn’t live without trees and hiking, morning coffee, or an outlet for my offbeat sense of humour. Most of all, I believe I’m here to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

 

 

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