Learning (Slowly) to Love Groups is a guest post in a series called “Your Life in Progress.” In this series we hear from other women like you and I – women who are learning to love and care for themselves well. They are taking risks, making mistakes, trying new things and letting others go, sometimes struggling, but ultimately pursuing simple lives of purpose, health & JOY.
When it comes to self-care and making my journey through life, I’ve done a decent job of finding mentors and carving out time for myself. What I’ve struggled with, though, is being open to the growth that comes from being part of a group of women my own age. When I say I’ve struggled, what I mean is that I’ve done most everything I can to avoid being part of women’s groups. I have several close friends and have found myself justifying my stance because these friendships have carried me through challenging times and provide me with much-needed support. I’m a better person because I’m walking through life with these women.
It probably isn’t a mystery that I avoid groups because I have had bad experiences with them. Like anyone who has lived any amount of time, I’ve had my share of schoolyard, high school, and adult slights, enough to make me want to categorically eliminate groups from my existence. Never mind that most of these happened years ago. I’ve been wounded and am slow to forgive. In addition, I tend to recharge in solitude, so seeking out a group has always been low on my list. And I like it that way.
SLOWLY I BEGAN TO REALIZE THE GIFT OF BEING PART OF A GROUP
Several years ago, though, I started to shift my thinking. A friend of mine invited me to join a book group a friend of hers was starting and, without thinking, I agreed. Joining a group has never been something I’ve taken lightly, so I surprised myself with my rapid response. Perhaps because my friend shared my quiet intensity, perhaps because I knew I’d be starting seminary soon and needed to practice my group skills, I’m not sure, but I agreed to join the group and was even a little excited about it.
Our first meeting was held on the front porch of one of the group members, not far from my house. I walked there in the warm spring air and took a seat with the other women gathering. Two of the women had small babies, and several others were glowing in the excitement of being away from the responsibilities of motherhood for a few hours. These were friendly faces, I decided, and I relaxed a little bit. I knew I was pregnant, but hadn’t really told anybody yet. I’d also decided to start a seminary graduate program the next year in the fall, but wasn’t sure how I would manage a toddler and an infant while doing that. The women in the group seemed like they might have some insight, or at least sympathy, and I vowed to give the group my best effort.
I think from an outsider’s perspective, my best effort would have been considered a failure, but I still consider it a great success and it was one of the most important experiences of my life. Each week, we’d gather for snacks, catch up, then discuss the book, and finally share what was going on so we could pray for one another. I’d always chat a little bit, but mostly listen. I’d generally participate pretty well in the book discussion and enjoyed that. But I can’t recall one time that first year I actually shared a prayer request. I listened to my new friends share very personal stories, but never got the gumption to share my own. Each week, though, I felt like I could, and that was a huge step for me. I was in awe of being part of such a safe space and knew it was something I needed, even though I wasn’t quite ready to share.
Near the end of our first year meeting together, I was put on bed rest to prevent having another premature baby, so I was forced to share something personal about myself with the group. My new friends, of course, responded with love despite my unwillingness to open up to them about my personal life. They brought me ice cream one night when I couldn’t come to the meeting, meals to help me get through bed rest, and helped me with my daughter so I could rest during the day. Their love and support was completely overwhelming, in the best way possible.
SLOWLY I BEGAN TO KNOW AND LOVE THESE WOMEN AND THEY LOVED ME BACK
During each of those private visits from my new friends, I slowly shared more about myself and my life with them and even more slowly shared more during our meetings. And, of course, as anyone with an even sort-of healthy view of groups could tell you, it made me love the group even more. These women started to know me and love me and I did the same for them. It was amazing.
Our group continued meeting for a few years until nearly all of us moved to new cities, following jobs and other opportunities. I still remain friends with the women in the group and am thankful for our time together. Being in that space and time truly changed me.
I can’t really say at what point groups became so challenging to me. In the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk*, he talks about the importance of groups in the development of young girls and women. He asserts that many female trauma victims lack the tools to deal with the drama and exclusion inherent in school-age groups. When I read that, his claims made sense to me and helped me understand myself better. In addition to the possibility of trauma at play, I simply love being alone. I believe these two factors contributed to my unhealthy aversion to groups.
I used to complain about all the interruptions to my work until I realized that these interruptions were my work. Henri Nouwen
Being part of this book group, though, made me realize that I was missing a crucial piece to becoming a more gracious and open person. I hate to think of people as interruptions, as I shared in the quote by Nouwen, but I so often do. And I decided that by having the discipline of being part of a group and learning to love and know people I didn’t hand pick, but who were given to me as gifts, I could do the slow work of not viewing others as interruptions.
It hasn’t always been easy for me and I can say with certainty that I’m not there yet. But I’m on the journey. Perhaps some of you have other ways of filling this need through volunteering or serving on committees or some of you more extroverted readers might use a discipline of solitude rather than something involving a group, but I consider my discipline to be an important part of my life, one that challenges me and helps to better pursue a life of purpose, health, and JOY. And any discipline we can safely engage with in our lives to bring about positive change is worth the effort, so I encourage you to think about your disciplines and the things you consider interruptions.
Some interruptions are simply interruptions, to be sure, but some interruptions could be pointing you to something outside yourself and could change your life for the better.
Shana is an Alaskan Ex-Pat, Lover of the Neglected, Quiet Agitator, Enthusiastic Pedestrian, and Part-Time Writer.
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