When I was in high school, I was lucky to have a group of friends wonderful enough to remind me of how sweet life could be. In a time marked by transition, instability, and lack of communication, I knew without any doubt that I could count on my friends to be there, to stay there, and to let me know what they were thinking. In return, I knew that I would take a bullet for any one of them. Though I transferred to a different school in 9th grade, I made it a priority to stay in touch with them, going so far as to join a sports team that several of them were on. Looking back, I can say with real clarity that without these people in my life, things would have gone much worse for me.
This is not to say everything was rosy and for the best: we were hooligans, we got in trouble, we used and sold drugs. In many ways we were lucky and, more to the point, privileged enough to get away with all that. The point is, we made a lot of mistakes, and yet we were also responsible for each others’ best successes. How was such a thing possible? How does community function?
The reason my friends were so helpful to me, in spite of the dangerous choices we were making together, is that we had more holding us together than adrenaline. I had known my friends for years, and we had been through a number of difficult things together. I was able to say with total certainty that they had my back, and I had theirs. In a time in my life when I felt like all of the safety nets had been cut, when all of the ground was shaking, when I couldn’t rely on anything else, I could rely on them to be available, to be sarcastic, to be caustic, and to care deeply about me.
Community is a tricky thing - if you ask someone on the inside what makes it worthwhile, they’ll tell you it’s not what the community does but how they do it. Look at corporate culture in America: we manage to produce incredible profit, but people report feeling alienated from their coworkers, and jump ship to other companies as soon as they’re made a better offer. This alienation is reaching epidemic levels, and is in large part responsible for Xanax being the most prescribed drug in the country.
The real value in community, at least in emotional terms, is stability and holding. We humans can get filled to bursting with emotion, particularly during our teenage years when our hormones are raging, and we often need help to hold all that feeling. We need to offload it somewhere. As children, we do this primarily with our parents. As we age into our teen years, though, we long to individuate from our families, which often means sharing less with our parents. Having a friend’s ear in these times can mean the difference between making the really big mistakes and the small ones.
This is clear in a lot of the research around addiction. While there is certainly a biological component to addiction, it would be foolish to pretend there isn’t an environmental one as well. Lab studies have been unambiguous in indicating that isolation and short-lived community decreases decision-making ability, while meaningful community fosters healthy and happy behavior. Practically speaking, we don’t think straight on our own. Real friends know us well enough to know when to step in and offer perspective.
The trick is in finding the right people to make your community. As parents, this is not a choice you can make for your kids. At best, you can teach them the kinds of discernment required for picking the right people and hope they are able to do so. This is understandably terrifying, to say the least, and it’s also necessary for your child’s individuation. Guaranteed, your kids will make mistakes - I certainly did. But the mistakes have a way of bringing people closer, and teaching them the value of sharing openly with each other. And it is this kind of deep communication that catches us in our most dangerous moments and reminds us to take a breath before making a decision. After all, what are safety nets if not friends in low places?