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Building community: lessons from swimming

What would be the impact if our current policy to insure safety and prevent drowning were to pay people to swim with each swimmer? No one could go swimming unless they had a paid professional, or paraprofessional, swim with them. Our present policy in human services and mental health is kind of like paying people to insure the safety and well-being of others. This orientation drives us to create or expand services to meet the needs of people and is dependent on considerable economic resources i.e. money. But, what if there was another way that insured people’s safety and cost relatively little money? Many people who have taken swimming lessons, whether from the American Red Cross, YMCA, or any organized institution, will know the term “buddy.” The “buddy system” is widely accepted as essential to safeguard against drowning.

As stated by the American Red Cross in 2015:

Always swim with a buddy; do not allow anyone to swim alone. Even at a public pool or a lifeguarded beach, use the buddy system!

We do not pay a “buddy,” but have the expectation that everyone can serve as a “buddy” for someone else. After all, people usually swim together in the same place.

The story of community-oriented rites of passage is to put into practice the principles of the “buddy system.” Everyone today is experiencing significant challenges in living. “Life is difficult” was the beginning of Scot Peck’s famous book The Road Less Traveled. Not only is life difficult, these days it is also dangerous for more and more children—in the sense of physical safety but also emotional and psychological safety. Just as with swimming, if we institute systems where everyone has at least one other person who can look out for them, be there during good times and bad, be a “buddy,” the dangers of drowning would be greatly reduced. A buddy system for children and youth is extremely important, but adults and parents can benefit from a strong family and friend support system within a community too.

Don’t steal my BUDDY BENCH, buddy! by Steve Baker. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Feelings of loneliness, alienation, and disconnection are insidious and subtle consequences of contemporary society. The growth of homegrown terrorists and their commitment of acts of mass atrocities are, in part, manifestations of these feelings of loneliness and alienation. When youth grow up and come of age in a caring community that offers pathways towards developing competencies and places for them to fulfill their dreams and aspirations, they will be more committed to the values of their community and less likely to destroy it. Community-oriented rites of passage transmit life-affirming values to the next generation. They strengthen the bonds between people in the community through reciprocity between the individual and community that serves the survival of all.

Take the “Buddy Bench” as an example. Developed by seven-year-old Christian Bucks, the concept is simple: whenever someone sits on a Buddy Bench at a school playground, they’ll be invited to play by another student. The idea of Buddy Bench can be extended to any public place. People sit on the bench as an invitation for others to join them. The Buddy Bench builds community two people at a time by establishing a norm that no one needs to feel alone and that friendships exists when people sit together.

Although the above lessons might appear trite and simple, wouldn’t this modest change in consciousness and practice promote the kind of compassion and caring that could contribute to communities that nourish life? In a sense, aren’t we all swimming and living in an interconnected world where we can each become someone else’s buddy?

Featured image: “Malenge, Kids” by Arian Zwegers. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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