The Freedom in Community – Choosing the Forest by Monique Murad

image by Claire Harrup via The Nature Conservancy

If you’ve ever been hiking, backpacking, or camping deeper in the woods, in the desert, or lived somewhere outside of a busy metropolitan area, you’ve experienced the true beauty that is nature in its purest, most sustainable form. You will have experienced what I will define as community at work. 

There are many definitions of community. As a daughter of immigrants, I was first exposed to ideas of community mostly out of necessity – needing to build a chosen family in a new, unfamiliar country. In my upbringing I saw the power of a community that doesn’t need to be defined by blood. In going back and forth between the US and Brazil to visit friends and relatives, I also saw that community building transcends geography – that we can feel deep belonging in multiple places, and how valuable having these different, geographically spread communities can be. Valuing friendships and biological family as equals, took pressure off one person, one space, to be everything.  It allowed me to enjoy the beautiful pieces of every one of my communities, and in turn, every aspect of my identity. 

This led me in my adult life to gravitate toward events and spaces that fostered this sense of intentional community building. From Daybreaker, a sober, morning dance party to Creative Mornings, a global breakfast lecture series that brings together the creative community and the “Solo” community, an online group founded by Peter McGraw (host of the Solo Podcast) of individuals coming together to share insights and experiences of strong independent living, these events began to shape how I saw community at a “movement” level, something beyond our inner circles. These are events where I show up by myself, and never feel alone, founded on ideas of community building, natural highs, and the power of inspiration, movement and connection. The founder of the Daybreaker, Radha Agrawal, wrote Belong, a workbook to successful community building.  In it she uses a simple definition of community that I think would be a good starting place: “a group of three or more people with whom you share similar values and interests and where you experience a sense of belonging.” 

I found deep comfort in the concept of community found within the Okinawan longevity tradition of “moai.” A concept I came across in Hans Manzke’s book For All: Democratizing Big Ideas, “moai” is one of the critical components of the Okinawan population being a blue zone. Blue zones are areas in the world known for populations that live the longest, and the healthiest. Named by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and author, his concept of blue zones built off of research conducted on villages of extreme longevity, where he discovered these communities, and what makes them successful, in five cities across the world – one being Okinawa, Japan. There are multiple things that make Okinawa a blue zone, one of which is community – their moai. It is a long held tradition of social support groups that start in childhood and extend into the 100s. These groups of about five, are paired as children and are meant to create a foundation of social, financial, health, and spiritual support throughout their lives. This tradition only validated for me the idea that community building is linked to healthier, happier, longer lives, and that there are benefits to developing communities outside of your immediate family structure. 

I have always referred to my community as something living.  I used the idea of watering my roots as a way to explain how I maintain such strong bonds with my geographically dispersed and seemingly very different groups of friends and family. It takes work, and is a lot like tending to a garden. But Bridgette Vasallo, in her book El Desafío Poliamoroso (the Polyamorous Dilemma) solidified this forest analogy for me when talking about the deconstruction of monogamy, not just in relationships, but in society. Forests are made up of such diverse individual living beings, all working together for a collective good. Forests emphasize the importance of valuing “different” versus “better or worse.” Vasallo highlights that in the grand scheme of things, we might want to strive for a life in a forest, versus being isolated plants on someone’s porch. Community living means choosing the forest, and community building is habitat restoration. 

I would describe myself as independent. I left home at sixteen, have moved every two years or so ever since. I am not afraid to try new things, to experience new places. But I don’t do this “independently” per say – I don’t do any of this alone, I do it in community. 

There are so many definitions of community, plenty of research on why it’s so important for health, for happiness. For me, I find that we can understand community and its importance in what a healthy forest can teach us. The forest is a space where individual animals, plant species, and even us humans, thrive, enjoy its beauty, and enjoy sustaining it over time. You will notice a few critical things that make the forest, and us as humans, not just survive, but thrive: Diversity, Roots, Decay, and Growth. 

Diversity. Forests, and those that live in them, need a diverse environment to thrive. The habitat within a forest is made up of plant and animal species that are critical, collectively, to its survival. We can see this, but we may not take the time to fully appreciate how these individual, seemingly extremely different pieces contribute to the collective experience that is the forest, and how this diversity allows for each individual species to thrive. 

In Vasallo’s description of our monogamous hierarchical society she explains how we are all working for capital gain, we are competing for the top. We don’t place enough value on “different”, we have an inherent need to rank, to rate, to choose one way as better than another. We operate in a space where we are so fearful of abandonment, that we forget how big our capacity to love, our capacity to connect, really is. And in the search for your soul mate, for your one perfect family, for the perfect job, and the one hobby that you will love for life, we lose the most important ingredient to a healthy thriving life – diversity. 

This lesson that forest diversity teaches us is centered around valuing the different people and groups in your life. Checking the hierarchy of your relationships, and how you are prioritized in others, learning to value relationships that are different, and redefining relationships as they change are all part of maintaining a diversity in your life that is essential to thrive together. Our community helps us check our blind spots. 

The roots. What we cannot see in the forest is the intricate foundation that lies hidden beneath our feet, beneath running streams, old foliage, new life, but it is the life-giving organ of the forest – the roots. An intricate web of small, to extremely large connections that run underground, that give life to shelter, to food, to everything the forest needs to survive. 

Some people, I find, mistake needing to be in one place at all times, for the rest of their life to building roots. I will speak from my own experience to say that caring for your roots, digging deep, doesn’t necessarily come with the quantity of time in a space, but the quality of it. Esther Perel emphasizes in her podcast “Where Should We Begin” that many couples make the mistake of thinking time will heal all – when it is what we do in that time that counts. I pull this into the ideas of community building, in that relationships are about quality over quantity. 

Taking care of your roots, means watering with intention. Not under watering, not over watering but just enough. Successful community building is more about investing the quality of the moments you have, rather than the amount of time you spend with your people. The concept that it takes more time and attention to write one sentence than five, and that people can feel the most lonely and disconnected living in a home with five people, than living by themselves, emphasizes for us that connection seems to be built in focused moments. 

This year I realized that I have deep, stable, and meaningful friendships across so many cities around the world. As I traveled, I reframed my visits and moves from hellos and goodbyes, to saying, “I’m here to water my roots.” In every city I visited, I had a couch to sleep on, a home cooked meal, a shoulder to cry on, a table to laugh at. I take the quality of my moments with my humans seriously – because I know I don’t have too many. I feel closer to some people that I spend a handful of days a year with, than some that I spend many hours of my day with all year. And this community allows me to make big, solo moves, to see new places, to try new things. My foundation is dispersed, and strong. 

The decay. As we walk through the forest, we feel the crunch of the leaves below us, the fallen branches, sometimes we have to jump over a tree that fell from last night’s storm. We see dead plants and animals and see them disintegrating back into the mud. Decay, death, is everywhere. It doesn’t consume the forest, though – it feeds it. It makes room for new life. 

The only things we can count on in this life are death and change. Yet, they are the things we seem to fear the most. We fear them so much that we don’t create space to value the beauty they bring. Tending to your community, building it, means welcoming the decay, the change, the breaks, the storms to come and letting them create space for something new, something beautiful. 

In practice, intentional community building has not been all sunshine and rainbows. Like we get heartbroken over romantic breakups, I have had my fair share of friend heartbreak. I have allowed some connections to die to create space for something new. I’ve let go of connections that didn’t align with my values. The difference here is not sacrificing necessary diversity, but recognizing when there is toxic decay that is getting in the way of new growth – it’s tricky, and I don’t have a formula to identify it, but I will say that our energy is a zero sum game. I love the saying, “we are the five people we spend the most time with.” If that is the case, we want to understand what that means for our growth, and what we can and should lay to rest. I have also allowed some connections to change, to allow for healthy, natural, new and unexpected growth. In some relationships, this means moving in between levels of intimacy, from close friendships to phases of being just acquaintances, and allowing for deeper connection to root when it’s time. In my love life, it’s looked like a recent and joyful divorce, in which we see our best days of friendship ahead of us. It looks like understanding what parts of our dynamic needed to be laid to rest, to create space for something new, something beautiful. 

Forests are remarkable places. They are life-giving within their own habitat, and fuel the world around them. And each being within a forest, individually gets to thrive, because of the habitat it contributed to create. 

I find that the terms community and freedom, bonds and singleness, come to be terms that people find to be mutually exclusive. But I would say, with most things in life, this mutual exclusivity is a bit of a myth. As someone that didn’t get the right emotional intelligence education, I really needed Pixar’s Inside Out. When you come to terms with the idea that a core memory of yours can be both sad and happy, filled with anger and compassion, you realize that grief is not the opposite of a joyful life, but a product of one. And true “independence” and “freedom” is not the opposite of a community-oriented life, but the product of one. 

So what can the forest teach us about living remarkably? Well, I think the important piece is this – we might not need a forest to survive. You can live a smaller, shorter, less remarkable life without intentional community. But I challenge you to choose the forest, choose the community, choose growth. 

Growth. Forests are always changing, adapting. The experience of the forest is both standing in awe at the hundred year old trees, and embracing the new life those trees create space for. New mushrooms, new critters jumping up and down branches, moss growing on the rocks by the waterfall, the new greenery that replaces the fallen colorful foliage. 

If you choose this life, the forest teaches us that community is essential to live a remarkable, impactful life. There is life and growth in community. The forest allows you to process decay – which in our lives can culminate as death, fear, abandonment – as what gives you space for new growth. This growth it fosters makes our existence bigger, more meaningful, brighter, and more independent. We need community to sustainably thrive. 

There is freedom in community. 

Monique Murad (she/her) is a Brazilian American writer and researcher born and raised in Los Angeles, and living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She works in research and consulting in international development, corporate and federal strategy, and corporate responsibility. She loves to dance, climb, be in the ocean and spend time with her people.

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