21 May 2008

Meanings - Belonging, Home, Community

I filled out a survey yesterday on community meaning. For each question, respondents were to give the first answer which came to mind. Along with questions about the respondents' understanding of various concepts, including belonging, home and community, was this question, the last one:

When do you most feel a sense of community?

Here was my response:

It has been a very long time. I'm 57 yrs old now and the last time I felt a sense of community was at the age of 14. Then, I was in an environment in which to be and express who I am was permissible; it was the first time in my life I'd experienced that. Unfortunately, it lasted for only 11 months, after which I had to leave that community. When I think of belonging, I think of home, and that's the place I associate with the latter.

I went for a walk after completing that survey and began reflecting on my answers. I soon realized that underlying my sense of the meaning of belonging, home and community was a single, uncomplicated idea: acceptance.

It was nothing so robust or overt as welcoming. Just acceptance, manifested in an environment in which everyone adopts a live-and-let-live attitude and respect for difference.

In that place, I was FREE TO BE ME, without pigeonholing or labelling.

Actually, the latter isn't quite right. ALL of the residents at that place were labelled, which meant that we ended up undistinguished from one another. That is, being labelled made us all equal - at least in each other's eyes, which was all that mattered to us.

You see, that place was Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, which doesn't exist anymore. In the 60's, that location on Lakeshore Blvd. in Toronto was a 'mental institution' or 'looney bin'. I'd more describe it as a warehouse for undesirables and strays, people who society was happy to throw away.

Now, given the horror of that place, how could I possibly recall it to mind whenever triggered to think of home or belonging or community?

It's because the patients were expected to have an emotional life and licensed to exhibit eccentric behaviour. We were permitted to be normal, as judged by our own standards.

The relief to be who we were was enormous, and the sense of freedom intoxicating. Never before or since have I felt anything like that degree of acceptance and with it, the freedom to stretch my faculties, explore who I was and who I could potentially be. It was mind expanding in the best sense of that term.

As bad as most of these institutions were, including LPH, they got some things right. For LPH, it was its failure to psychiatrically treat certain of its residents - to leave us alone. Its failure to treat summed up, in a word, acceptance of us just the way we were.

Curious about LPH? For a start, check out this site.

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