I recently read that Benedictine monks take a vow of stability, a promise to stay in place. The idea is that this makes Benedictines commit to their community. It is essentially a marriage, for better or for worse, to the community’s members and physical space. The Benedictines’ vow is a choice to grow their faith, serve, and flourish where they are, in an unchanging community.
Those of us who are not monks fortunately do not need to make such a commitment to our physical space or the people in it. But the idea of connecting stability to staying in one place with one small group of individuals sent me spinning into overthinking mode.
When I was in college and moving in and out of apartments and dorm rooms, home was where my stuff was. Friends and apartments came and went from my life and it was hard to grow deep connections to either places or people. Stability was the books and posters and clothes that could fit in the back of a Subaru, and my parents who helped fix crises that threw me off balance.
Stability now is rooted in my routines, my circle of beloved and trusted people, and my peaceful home. Stability is an income I can depend on, a car that starts every morning and evening, food in the pantry, and the knowledge that I have or can get nearly everything I need and want. As I’ve aged, I’ve mellowed and that too is part of my stability. And it’s in the gratitude that comes from knowing that my comfort is a privilege. Stability lets us return some of the good fortune we’ve been given. External stability helps create internal stability.
Change and stability can be compatible – in fact, I think stability facilitates change. When we have a stable physical and emotional infrastructure, we have the freedom and energy to grow, take more risks, because we have a safety net. I trust that my people are my people regardless of where my place is (thank you, my people!). When we feel stable, we can try new places, new ideas, and new relationships more easily.
This idea that stability supports risk-taking is true for places as well as people. A community can evolve and grow when it’s stable. The economic and social safety net gives local governments and the private sector confidence to invest in a new farmer’s market structure or downtown restaurant. A community without stability struggles to provide the basics. It can’t afford to take risks, there’s little confidence that a big investment will be sustainable, and without that, growth is hard. They need baby steps first to build stability.
In my professional life I’ve worked with a few communities with great potential but that just couldn’t get it together. Community leaders were smart and committed but couldn’t get everyone on board with a plan. Or the communities couldn’t overcome their negative reputations. Or leaders were inexperienced and either didn’t know where to start, or how to manage a big sparkly thing that fell in their lap. One banked on a huge private project to help pay for significant public investment, then the private investment didn’t happen and the town has a big public park it can’t afford to maintain. Its risk was too much, too soon, taken based on misplaced trust, and it made the town less stable than before. The safety net wasn’t big enough to absorb the risk.
Like the Benedictines, communities are bound by physical space and people that are not easily changed, and they have to work with those limits to grow. Without a safety net, almost everything is a risk. But without some risks, nothing changes and they will just tread water forever. The risks need to be in proportion to the safety net.
If there’s an upside to instability, it’s resilience. When our stability is shaken, we either learn from it and rebuild smarter and stronger, or we remain vulnerable when the next earthquake comes. What doesn’t kill us, after all. Some people in this economically unstable community choose to stay, even when it makes them vulnerable. They choose one kind of stability over another – the stability of staying in place, with their people, through the earthquake. Like the Benedictines, they've committed to the community, both place and people. When forced to choose between economic stability and their community, they chose community.
And the downside of stability is complacency. We want change, but sometimes we just don’t seem to make it happen. Is it that we don’t trust the safety net, or can’t get too far away from it? Is it about our ability to recover from a period of instability? Is it just less work to stay where we are? Or timing? But sometimes you just have to take the leap.
Have you made a leap? Tell me about it in the comments below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can the safety net be too big, too safe? This is a fascinating article about my hometown, Kalamazoo, where philanthropists are paying for some of the city’s operations, like filling potholes. Will the city’s resilience suffer? And how will private money influence city policy and the risks it takes?
The Internet Rabbit Hole for this post started with Thomas Merton, a 20th century Benedictine monk and prolific writer, then moved to St. Benedict’s Rules. Here are two short pieces about Benedictine vows.
The photo at the top of the page is one I took at a New York gallery I can't remember the name of. The artist is El Anatsui, a native of Ghana who makes sculptures from metal scraps and bottle caps and other bits. Cool stuff.
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