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How difficulties can build community

Hand holding a maple leaf with a heart cut out of it
Photo by Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash

As we learn to embrace diversity at all levels of society, it helps to have examples of what inclusion looks like. I recently talked to Ruhiyyih, who shared her story of being accepted and included despite difficulties and differences.

Facing Medical Difficulties

After a near-death experience in Tibet and an extended hospital stay, Ruhiyyih slipped into a severe depression and decided to return to the U.S. to live. She had been living and teaching in China for nearly 10 years at that point. Upon settling in Arizona, she sought help from a psychiatrist, who put her on a heavy regimen of drugs. Her symptoms got worse, but the doctor chalked it up to stress. She started forgetting things a lot and had trouble with tasks that used to be easy: writing lesson plans and grading, etc. She decided to return to China, where she’d have more support, both career-wise and spiritually.

It was the doctors in China who identified the problem—one of the drugs she was taking causes dementia-like symptoms in a small percentage of people. They immediately eased her off the medications. She learned that the effects of this drug could last for years, or even for the rest of her life. She had trouble remembering old friends. Speech was difficult, as she would lose words in the middle of a sentence. Her impulse control was affected and she’d find herself speaking too candidly or too emotionally or voicing her unedited thoughts.

Striving to Serve

A couple of years ago, she moved back to Oregon, where she grew up. Not long after she returned, she was elected to the governing council (Local Spiritual Assembly) of her local Baha’i community. That first year, she did her best to cope: doing her memory exercises, writing everything down, and using memory tools and supports.

But when she was re-elected the second year, she was concerned about being an obstacle to the Assembly’s consultative process. She didn’t want her memory lapses and unedited candidness to hamper the group’s ability to make plans and resolve issues. So she wrote a letter explaining her history and offering to step down.

Support from the Community

The Assembly consulted with her about the issue. She explained that she gets confused when the discussion moves from one topic to the next, without resolving the first one. She had a hard time deciphering the layout of the meeting minutes. Once she spoke up, other members felt free to say they found these things challenging too.

In the end, they all decided she should stay and the Assembly would adjust its processes. Ruhiyyih’s willingness to speak up about her difficulties allowed for more trust and vulnerability in the group and the members grew closer together as a result.

Now, when Ruhiyyih starts to take on more tasks, other members of the group stop and check in with her about the load she’s carrying. She feels comfortable now asking people to rephrase things so she can understand. A couple individuals have taken it upon themselves to text her before meetings and community gatherings to make sure she remembers to come. They send her the Zoom link each time, because they know she has trouble keeping track of it. And the Assembly is starting to understand mental health issues and how that impacts a person’s involvement in the community.

Feeling Included

Ruhiyyih also talked about being included despite differences. Recently, her community decided to revamp its website. A couple people in the community have excellent technical skills, so they spearheaded the project. And they asked Ruhiyyih to join them. She has no background in web development and told them so. But they wanted her because she’s a social person, an ideas person, someone who could help them decide what to put on the website.

It has taken conscious effort on both sides. But it’s been worth it. When Ruhiyyih received the planning document for the site, she had to look up most of the terms. When they met, the technical folks patiently and easily adapted their lingo and explained the technical terms and concepts. This was truly compassionate listening—and it enriched everyone. Now they meet regularly and there’s a tremendous energy around the project.

The foundation is trust—the technical people have worked together professionally and they know how to get things done. Ruhiyyih helps them make the site accessible to the average person. As she pointed out:

“Building community means really being friends on a personal level, helping each other with daily life. When we’re friends, we’re more inclined to listen. We develop a true, sincere love. When you care about someone, you want to hear what they have to say.”

If you have a story about being included, I’d love to hear it. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth. ~ Baha’u’llah

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