This story is part of a series on connection. Here are the previous stories.
After you’ve decided that you want to create broader ties and a stronger sense of connection, you’re still left with a major question: What should you do?
Since we all have different interests, we’ll arrive at different answers: some of us will want to join an evening gardening club, others will be drawn to a centering prayer group, still others will decide to spend one night a month singing John Cougar songs with a dedicated 1980s choir. But even though we’ll arrive at different destinations, the same process can guide us as we think about what to join.
This seems like an obvious question, but it’s not. As soon as you tell a spouse or a friend that you’d like to get involved with a new group or activity, you’ll often get told what to do. Or you might have your own fixed ideas about what you should be doing.
I started my connection challenge by going to a training session for cat cuddlers at the Toronto Humane Society (THS). This seemed like a sensible way to build community: I supported the mission of the THS, loved animals, and figured I’d meet a lot of like-minded people. The problem was that as soon as I walked into the cat adoption room, I knew I didn’t want to be there. Cat cuddlers sat on the floor, petting cats who had been let out of their cages, and this sunny, selfless scene filled me with deep feelings of…boredom. I’m high-strung and enjoy the occasional jolt of novelty. The cat room felt like Sleepy Hollow: there just wasn’t enough going on.
I left the pound wishing I could be a cat cuddler but recognizing that this great form of introverted connection—sitting quietly with others while petting cats—wasn’t right for me. I kept the general idea of animals in mind (see below) but realized I had to approach it in a different way.
If you’re flipping through the pages of a newspaper, reading Twitter feeds, or just daydreaming on your own, what do you end up focusing on? Is it stories about gourmet food or—on the other end of the spectrum—food insecurity? Do you find yourself reading everything you can about veterans’ issues? Is it mental health that rivets your attention, adoption, or organic farming?
Ask yourself what rouses your interest and makes you want to dive in. It doesn’t matter if the subject has little to do with your day-to-day life. Connecting isn’t like applying for a senior management position: you don’t need a lot of experience. What you do need is something that will motivate you enough to get you out the door and serve as a bridge to new people who care about the same things you do.
Start by defining the subject loosely. In my case, I decided that what I cared about was “animals.” I put that subject in the middle of a blank sheet of paper and then asked what I could practically do.
When you’re thinking about what you can join in your town or city, you need to think broadly. Go online, and search your area of interest along with your state or region, e.g., “animals Toronto.” Keep an open mind: activities that seem impossible at first might come to seem quite doable over time. Try to find at least three or four groups organized around the issue you care about. Don’t pick just one. It’s really important to have more than one group on your list.
Once you’ve created a list of options, go to the meeting that seems the most appealing or that feels the most manageable.
After leaving the cat cuddling session, I drew up a list of all the groups I could think of that dealt with animal issues in Toronto. At the time, the local Greenpeace office was doing advocacy work around endangered tigers, so I made my way to one of its monthly orientation sessions.
I ended up not volunteering with Greenpeace, but the meeting had an important effect on me. I realized that I liked sitting in a room and talking to people who cared deeply about animals. I also realized that Greenpeace was offering the right level of stimulation: there was a lot more going on than just patting cats. The fit, however, was still wrong—Greenpeace was lobbying against KFC, and some of the activities involved dressing up like Colonel Saunders. But the boost I got from that hint of connection was enough to propel me to the next group on my list, which turned out to be a really good fit.
I’ll be writing about this more in my next post, but the sense of fit between you and the group or activity you’re checking out matters a lot. That’s why you need more than one group on your list. It’s quite likely that the first group you pick might sound good but feel wrong. Don’t override what your gut is telling you. I admired everything about the Toronto Humane Society, but I didn’t want to be there.
It took me three tries to find the group I ultimately stuck with—which was, to my surprise, an animal welfare protest group. But a single process helped me identify the sort of group I wanted to join. If you start big (what do you care about?), work your way down to the particulars (what can you actually do?), and check out more than one group, you’ll likely find the one that feels like it’s been waiting for you all along.