A couple years ago a friend of mine did an internet search on the man she was dating. A horrifically traumatizing event that had happened to his family was detailed in a news article. He had yet to share this information with her. As they continued dating she had no idea how to bring it up. As a couple of months went by she wondered how she would act if he did share it. Surprised? Horrified? Caring? Would she be honest and say she already knew? How would she handle the “unearned intimacy” she had googled her way into? She didn’t know, but what was certain was that her response was tainted, less intimate, less real.

We live in a confusing time. A time where social media and technology allow us to dig deeply into each others’ lives without any face-to-face or hand-in-hand interaction. We’re privy to information about each other we haven’t earned the right to know. Unearned intimacy is abounding while true connection is rare—we’re so disconnectedly connected.

It’s a tricky thing. How much to share online. How we want to expose ourselves. How much we want to know about other people (and sometimes there are very good reasons, such as safety or credibility, for researching another person). How much we want to, or can, depend on people and “communities” we may never meet in a physical space.

At this point, most of us have had an experience like my friend’s. Maybe not as dramatic but similar in nature. We know something about someone they didn’t tell us themselves, nor did their close friend or family share it with us. Sometimes it’s serious or important, something that was undoubtedly complicated and hard. Sometimes it’s something that makes us uncomfortable, like a death, or fascinated, like allegations of misconduct.

Whether it’s through facebook, google, or gossip, unearned intimacy is a symptom of our times. It’s the facts we know about people that don’t actually tell us the truth. The truth about the situation. Truths about the person. Truths that we only unsurface when we are in relationship, in dialogue, with another being about the information we’re receiving. Truths that take connection and understanding to hold and process.

Look at celebrity culture, it’s all about knowing private things about people who we don’t really know at all. People we will likely never meet and, if we do, we aren’t going to get to know the inner workings of their life. What makes them cry? What do they regret? What brings them to their knees? What are they most proud of in their personal lives? What are they least proud of? How does their face crinkle when they are truly sorry? How do their hands move when they are deeply grateful?

We’ve become used to skipping intimate moments and conversations yet thinking we are in relationship or community. And, it’s absolutely devastating our sense of real connection and belonging. It’s devastating our ability to appropriately and fully respond to the predicaments facing this planet, including racial injustice, oppression, species extinction, and ecocide.

As a therapist and communatarian, I know most people in this “culture” are deeply disconnected and lonely. While we have access to information, experiences, and people like never before, we need more. We are wired for connection. We long for intimacy. Intimacy is the building block to community. When we don’t experience deep connection and community on an ongoing basis something feels perpetually wrong. Because something is perpetually wrong—not with us as individuals—with the system, with our sociopathic “culture.” We’ve been unrooted from our land bases, our communities, and our souls.

Here’s where it gets more insidious—intimacy, staged vulnerability, and community are now used as marketing triggers and visibility techniques. We are constantly beckoned to join online groups deemed “communities” and “tribes.” I find, more often than not, these words are misused at best, dishonest and disrespectful at worst. (Let me be incredibly clear about this: using the word tribe to market a platform or business that’s not specifically about building intimate community, is not only dishonest but it’s also a disrespectful act of appropriation.) If using a morally and communally bankrupt system to leverage our deepest needs and fears for profit doesn’t raise your hackles, it should, because it’s predatory. It’s a misuse of leadership, a misuse of power.

I want to recognize that there are some online groups that are truly communities. My sister is chronically ill and can’t leave her house often. She has built some amazingly intimate relationships and communities online. They respond to each other. They help each other when they can. They work through conflict as best they can. They grieve when someone dies or leaves the group. In other words, they are reciprocally vulnerable.

At its base, community is a group of people (usually less than 150 people) who are deeply committed to knowing each other. Who depend on each other. Who tend to each other. Who NEED each other. Even more than that, community is often (not always) rooted in place, a land-base we care for. A watershed we protect because it gives us life. Animals, wild and captive, we share resources with. A true community is weaved into the fiber of beings.

Building community is not easy (it’s one of the most challenging, heartbreaking, and worthwhile endeavors I’ve ever taken on in my life). There’s no life-hack for community. There’s no life-hack for intimacy. They take time. They take skill. They take commitment. We can’t just press a button. We can’t just post and comment on pictures. We can’t just be there when it’s convenient for us. We can’t hire someone to respond. We can’t use it for our own benefit without reciprocating.

If we are earning intimacy, if we are in community, we must be tracking each other’s minds and hearts. We must be appropriately available and vulnerable. A vulnerability that is not curated (because vulnerability can’t be curated). Interactions that attune to each other’s movements and micro-expressions. Moments that can’t be fully explained but only experienced. Moments like the look on my dad’s face at my brother’s funeral. The pain of saying goodbye to my best friend as she moved to another country. Hearing the distress in the voice of a fellow community member as we work through conflict.

Earned intimacy and community are not places or spaces we end up in, they involve ongoing acts of courage and care. I genuinely wonder if true community and intimacy can be built online. I am certain they can’t be built for marketing and profit.

I don’t have the answers but I think we need to start asking ourselves some serious questions. How do I earn intimacy in my life? How do I participate, or profit, from unearned intimacy? Are the “communities” or “tribes” I am a part of truly communities? If not, what’s a better, more honest, term I could use? A term that represents its true intentions. And, what are the true connections and communities in my life, if any? What makes them different from a marketing audience or mere group of like-minded people?

These are important questions to ask because the impact these topics, these conversations, have on us as individuals and a collective is the difference between evolution and extinction. Intimacy and community are not simple concepts, not terms to be thrown around and profited from, they are the cornerstones of a generative existence.

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Credits and Footnotes:

1- Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash.

2- My mentor, Francis Weller, has written about the loss of village (community) as one of the primary gates of grief. His book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, is the most comprehensive and beautifully written book on grief I know of. (Seriously, get a copy–preferably from your local library or bookstore because fuck Amazon–it will change your life.) He writes, “We are born, and as we pass through childhood, adolescence, and the stages of adulthood, we are designed to anticipate a certain quality of welcome, engagement, touch, and reflection. In short, we expect what our deep-time ancestors experienced as their birthright, namely, the container of village… This is our inheritance, our birthright, which has been lost and abandoned. The absence of this requirement haunts us, even if we can’t give them a name, and we feel their loss as an ache, a vague sadness that settles over us like a fog.”

3- Rachael Rice wrote about “performative vulnerability” in her April 2017 essay titled “White Ladies Finding Themselves Sisterhoods.”

4- The “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand” critiques, in part, how online marketing techniques leverage mental triggers, such as the need for community and belonging, to pressure people into making irrational buying decisions.

5- To further look into misuse of power and “right use of power,” I recommend the Right Use of Power Institute.