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On Being Together

(Some raw thoughts I've written down solely to help me clarify my thinking.)

Being together with people I love and who love me in return is a source of great joy and solace.

Yet being with people can also lead to distress.

Like many, I've encountered rejection and resulting feelings of loneliness, I've been the target of ignorant nastiness, and some make it clear I am of no value while others happily place unreasonable burdens upon me. My own experiences are but a small selection from the menu of unwelcome situations that could be, and often are, meted out to people.

Dealing with complicated experiences and finding a way to work through challenging encounters often feels painful and can lead to a sense of failure or hopelessness. But I believe this process is also an opportunity for growth, albeit through small, difficult, and often misplaced, steps. Allowing complicated feelings, pain and failure to manifest is certainly better than the alternative: sweeping things out of sight means the distress is never addressed, explored or dealt with.

So, being together requires conscious work and reflection.

The good stuff can take as much effort as the bad. To be loving, compassionate, tolerant and forgiving towards others requires great strength of character. The bad stuff shows we are all flawed sensitive beings whose strength often fails us. We have an endless capacity to hurt and be hurt by each other. This is especially true if we don't allow ourselves the time and energy to reflect upon and consciously adjust our behaviour towards each other.

Sadly, some simply don't care for others or for such self reflection.

For example, narcissists (by definition) lack empathy or compassion and only make an effort in relationships if they see a benefit to themselves. This is a tragic form of ignorance, for they will never know the joy of relationships shared with loved ones who reciprocate emotional investment and mutual care. For them, being together is an exercise in self aggrandisement, domination or profit.

The origins of such self-centredness are complicated. Ironically, introspection and self-reflection - the very traits such people fail to exercise - would help address and overcome such origins.

I believe everyone has a unique and valuable journey through life, even if their current location or direction of travel is deeply problematic. Recognising this applies to a narcissist or other difficult individual takes (the afore mentioned) strength of character. But it means it is possible to be together without getting crushed by the weight of their ego or toxic behaviour. Sadly, sometimes this is simply not possible and you have to cut your losses and move on.

I often wonder how to respond to the difficulties that arise from being together with others. I continue to believe that being together is often a privilege and a source of happiness and growth. Yet some of my recent collaborations have also been a source of great pain (interactions with aspects of the Python community spring to mind). As a result, my feelings about being together have changed significantly over the past couple of years.

I used to be all about promoting "the community" as a way of being together. An immediate problem is "the community" is an amorphous blob of a term that folks never pin down. This is a significant cause of many problems as misunderstanding is rife. In any case, I naively contributed and volunteered my code, time, effort and money. In short, I tried very hard to be a positive part of "something". For the past 12 years or so, this "something" was the Python programming community.

In my experience, there are two common contrasting ways folks describe or think about the notion of "community": top-down (meaning the community is managed) and bottom-up (where the community emerges through participation).

I've always been reticent about top-down bureaucratic, formal and hierarchical notions of community. Often they are well meaning yet ineffectual (or sometimes even damaging) self defeating processes. They can also easily turn into toxic dumpster fires full of malice (politics and power plays being well known examples of contributing factors to such a sorry state of affairs). Finally, they tend to gain a momentum that makes it easy to squash and ignore rather than cherish and nourish individuals and creative innovation. While my experience of the "formal" Python community has mostly been extraordinarily positive, there has been enough not-so-good-stuff that I've chosen to step away. I can only but wish the Python community well, but it's a ship in which I no longer sail.

But I don't want to find myself in a chaotic bottom-up community either. While these are ad hoc, improvised and informal, there is still a hierarchy, along with impositions of power and other negative political machinations. These are lived out through hidden communication channels, gossip or because the loudest or most charismatic folks hold the floor. People are either "in" or "out" of the circle of these "movers and shakers".

At least more formal communities appear to be up front about hierarchy, the exercise of power, the scope and relations of roles and how one assumes positions therein..!

I can't help but feel that something is missing when we view communities as such formal structures. Communities are collections of individual people and, perhaps, the missing element to make sense of being together is an explicit focus on the "character" of participants. Just how do individuals reflect and choose to behave when being together?

I'm reminded of this rather interesting essay, by C.S.Lewis. I first read it when I was a music undergraduate and found it via my Christian room-mate. Lewis describes an "Inner Ring", something akin to the circle of "movers and shakers" vying for influence, power and prestige that I describe above. The part of the essay that most speaks to me comes at the very end:

"And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it."

Reaching back in time to feel like my 18 year old undergraduate self, I want to be with folks who are open to compassionate, collaborative, cooperative ways of working but without any extra problematic notions of "community" (as described above). I simply want to bring myself, and welcome others who want to join me, in a place where there's recognition, a connection, frisson or creative energy from which we can mutually grow.

In other words, I am inviting friendship.

Friendship requires trust, honesty, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness... all those things that depend upon strength of character. Putting in such effort for others is the antipode of the machinations needed to become one of the "in" crowd or a member of the organisational elite.

So here's the thing... the tech world has its fair share of folks who forget or don't understand what I believe makes a place positive, friendly and safe when being with each other. Such folks see collaboration in terms of gaining prestige and power. This is the stuff of narcissistic day dreams.

In an organised community such behaviour is addressed by a code of conduct (and the Python community spend a lot of time and energy acting on this with varying degrees of success, from [alas] hollow virtue signalling through to very effective networks of support centred on extraordinarily kind and caring individuals). Conversely, informal communities tend to lack this sort of public or explicit "framework" often with detrimental results (folks are able to capitalize, abuse or manipulate the informal "hidden" networks and relationships to selfish or unpleasant ends with no clear way to call them out).

My focus on self-reflection and things within my own control explains why I've found myself writing a sort of poetic personal code I call "on being together". I'll make it a part of all my future coding projects (and encountering Xe's Creator's Code inspired this effort). It's very much a work in progress and has become an expression of what you can expect from me and what I hope from you should we find ourselves "being together" in a place to collaborate with each other.

When being together, especially if things go wrong,
we acknowledge and work through differences.
In so doing, we transform and enlarge each other.

To nurture our mutual growth,

    this is a place of
        learning, understanding, and sharing;

    this is a place to
        affirm tolerance and compassion;

    this is a place for
        collaborative creativity.

All the aspects of yourself you choose to bring to this place
are welcome here.

Reciprocate! Welcome, embrace and learn from others
(even in the face of apparent hostility or misunderstanding).

Thoughtful, careful and courteous contributions are a gift,
and never knowingly diminish, dehumanize or harm others.

To act against this spirit invites ostracism,
a loss that diminishes us all.

Thank you.