A Word On Fellowship

When I think about the word ‘fellowship’ the first thing that came to my mind was the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. And even though, I love it and J.R.R. Tolkien is a genius writer, I could not help myself thinking that such powerful word could be narrowed in my mind to Frodo Baggins’ and his companions fantasy adventure. That feeling of helplessness encouraged me to rethink about the idea of Fellowship and share it, perhaps in a non-conclusive work but sufficiently persuasive to encourage further rethinking on its readers.

Finding the definition of Fellowship was the best way to start. And among the numerous connotations that can be given to the word, for this article two dictionary definitions of the word will be more than enough:

i. “a group of people or an organization with the same purpose”

ii. “a friendly feeling that exists between people who have a shared interest or are doing something as a group”

Accordingly, if the main elements of both definitions could be converged and be expressed in one single Fellowship Equation it would be the following:

Fellowship = a group of people + share an interest/do something + have a purpose + experience a friendly feeling

In this manner, the possibilities of interpretation for the Fellowship Equation are endless. What could be its scope? How can the limits of the meaning of ‘fellowship’ be defined? Shall we stick to a theoretical and narrowed definition or shall we place our boundaries of interpretation through our empirical knowledge? Perhaps, our human experience as individuals -encompassed by our learnings, relationships, memory, worldliness - is the best reference that we have. So, in order to grasp the meaning of fellowship our human experience always becomes the best tool to set such limits.

The understanding of the concept of Fellowship goes way beyond the practical sense of experiencing friendly human interactions and trying to find some purpose to them on the way. Could we say that a group of doctors just because they have a degree that says ‘Doctor of Medicine’ are in a fellowship? I would answer unhesitatingly: No. Further on, I will explain my reasons to reach this conclusion with the aim of deepening on the argument of this work and its significance.

 It is reasonable to believe that a group of individuals just for the sake of being classified under the same label have a fellowship, but yet, this is not enough to satisfy the four elements of our Fellowship Equation. Two individuals could have a degree in Medicine, do a similar activity every day, treating a patient for example, but their purpose could acutely differ. The first individual could have a true but yet concealed purpose when treating patients, namely ‘to receive a payment’. The second individual could have an ultimate purpose which is ‘to recover the health of the patient, because as a doctor he knows that he has that power, of healing’. With this crucial distinction, it is fairly obvious noticing that the last element of our equation ‘experiencing a friendly feeling’ has been left out from all consideration and yes, it should be left out because that friendly feeling which could appear between both individuals would not be, in my opinion, genuinely strong.

So now, what about more conceptual purposes? What happens in the case where those purposes are not individualistic but of a more universal nature? Let’s think about an aspiration of humanity, universally pursued. I would like to focus on human values, abstract conceptions, for instance, ‘the common good’ -as the third element of our Fellowship Equation, the ultimate purpose. So, with this ultimate purpose in mind and for it to have a clearer understanding, from now on, it will be referred to as ‘The Fellowship of the Common Good’. Interestingly, the necessity of individuals to find a meaningful purpose of their lifetime doings may bolster the achievement of that worldwide aspiration, of that ultimate purpose. People around the world could be doing something, acting collectively with this purpose in mind without other people knowing about it. And thus, according to our Fellowship Equation they could be and would be in a fellowship if they fully satisfy its elements.

Let’s imagine that Group A is a group of individuals located on an island in the Pacific. Group B is encompassed by few students who are currently living in the town of Exeter. Both groups advocate for an ultimate purpose of ‘encouraging women who have suffered from domestic violence to self-recover their human dignity’. Each group fulfils what needs to be done to pursuit for that purpose on their own way with a varying impact. They could do that through different activities such as campaigning, regularly holding talks with the victims, creating awareness about the matter within their local community, taking time to listen to what a complete stranger has to say about the matter while they take a 10-minute bus ride and so on. Each group is completely unknown to the other. Group A is not aware of what Group B is doing and vice versa, not even that the other group existed. So, could we say that the people of both groups are in a fellowship? How can we be conclusive about that?

Within our worldliness, we belong to indirect fellowships of an anonymous nature. If we find that the ultimate purpose of some of our daily actions is ‘the common good’ we are fulfilling the elements of the Fellowship Equation of the Common Good without noticing. For this reason, we turn into an important part of something that is much greater than us yet, anonymous due to the fact that we do not know the identity of those other individuals and even more shocking, that we are in a fellowship!

The second element of our Fellowship Equation of the Common Good ‘share an interest/do something’ is continually being fulfilled by us. However, there is a stretch of time, as an individual could spend his whole life in this stage, only fulfilling this equation’s element. In consequence, we could realize and conclude that the Fellowship of the Common Good is doomed to have a relative nature. Difficult to conceive in our lifetimes, given our physical temporality and existential uncertainty because, at the moment when we have fulfilled all the elements of the Fellowship Equation of the Common Good, at that very moment, we would live in the ‘ideal’ world.

Under these circumstances, this last argument would say that people who have ‘the common good’ as their purpose are not in a fellowship yet, because during their lifetime they are continually fulfilling the second element of the equation – ‘sharing an interest/doing something’- and therefore, have obviously failed to fulfill the third and fourth elements. But here is the point. What about if the fulfillment of that second element, for us is in fact, our ultimate purpose?

1.  Fellowship of the Common Good = Group K + X + ‘the common good’+ experience a friendly feeling

2. ‘Current’ Fellowship of the Common Good = Group W + Y + X + do experience a friendly feeling

Both equations despite their distinction can work simultaneously. The relative nature of the first one whose individuals –the Group K- do not belong to a specific time or space allows the second equation to be fulfilled by those individuals –the Group W- whose nature is constrained by time and space. For the individuals who form part of the ‘Current’ Fellowship of the Common Good their ultimate purpose is the very thing of doing something and sharing the interest through their lifetimes, just doing. Doing for the sake of reaching that beyond purpose of ‘the common good’ –the third element, the one of the first equation. As a result, among the anonymity of the fellowship feeling we all work as the metaphor: ‘we are all grains of sand’.

We are able to share mutual bonds with others even though they are unknown to us. This bond allows us to be in fellowship with other individuals, with whom we are doomed to not know about, to keep anonymous to each other. At this moment, we are in fellowship with …. Who? Does not matter. Our condition, the very state of being in a fellowship nourishes its pivotal meaning. It gives birth to an enduring feeling of friendliness between individuals, allowing humanity, as an intergenerational specie, to mutually relate and evolve towards an ultimate sought purpose, something so idealistic, such as ‘the common good’.

Remarkably, the anarchist philosopher, Peter Kropotkin, proposed that mutual aid, with its social and economic implications, is the factor that has allowed humanity to evolve. Nonetheless, I would like to argue that such mutual aid does not necessarily needs to be known to us and have a direct impact on every individual. What about if such mutual aid exists but is yet indirect and anonymous to us? Would it lose significance to humankind’s forthcoming existence and evolution?

A universal fellowship allows continuity in the pursuit of such noble purposes –and those ones of a dreadful kind as well. When we acknowledge these fellowships is where we overcome the anonymity of people, time and space. As an illustration, how strange would it sound for an individual to think and realize that at this moment: “He lives in fellowship with Martin Luther King Jr.!” Both advocate and have advocated for the same recognition of civil rights and an ultimate purpose of human equality. But even though Martin Luther King Jr. passed away 50 years ago, experiencing a friendly feeling with him is possible when that individual knows more about his endeavor, life, accomplishments, all what he did and who he was. And where there is a shared, specific and matching ultimate purpose between both characters, in the past and the present. The fulfillment of the equation gives birth to an inherent sense of fellowship, anachronistic and universal among individuals.

With this approach, individuals ‘are doing something as a group’ and that very action of ‘habitually doing’ becomes a part of the ‘doers’ nature, resulting on an impact on individuals’ future nature and evolution. Correspondingly, the existential burden that any individual has with humanity, to pursuit for co-existence and evolution, is diminished when those sought purposes become inherent. Those small actions, invisible to our eyes, are the reflection of our human reality, that one that we are sharing and individually experiencing at the moment.

Unfortunately, this current reality demonstrates how every community is going through a process of sharp segregation which becomes far more obvious. Some people would say that this segregation is barely notorious, people still gather around, enjoy having a short conversation with a stranger, spending time with a friend or a loved one. Nonetheless, this social dissociation is of a noxious kind. Firstly, because it is overlooked by most of us. Secondly, because is subtle and it takes place inside individuals. People can easily refuse to believe in a glittering and ‘invisible’ thing called: ‘universal fellowship’.

This disregarded segregation results on a continues state of loneliness. A loneliness that leaves meaningless the concept of fellowship. Nowadays, individuals feel more isolated than ever, I would describe it with a profound worry, as a severely lonely state. Just think about it. A person can be sitting between a group of people and still feel completely lonely, drunken on a self-meaningless experience. Thereupon, it seems that individuals are going towards a fearful and permanent state of loneliness because there is not a shared interest nor a purpose and much more less likely, a friendly feeling in between.

That kind of loneliness was the one that Henry D. Thoreau experienced and that he frankly shared with his readers. Thoreau was an American writer who was born and lived in the state of Massachusetts during the first half of the 19th century. At that time, slavery was lawfully practiced between the inhabitants and highly encouraged in the community. Thoreau, decisively, was against it and in one of his writings he helplessly regretted been a member of that community. His reasons were witty enough to question the entire legitimacy of the existence of a true sense of community in the individual. In his words, he had never ‘signed up’ to be a part of such community!

How is it possible to belong to a community whose members do not experience a feeling of community?  So, if the feeling of community is not born in us innately but needs to be pursued and fulfilled, why is it possible to still feel a ‘sense of community’ in us? How can we experience a connection and disconnection, of a continued or random nature at all time with ‘our community’?

In my opinion, the borderline between individuals and communities are fellowships. And perhaps, in the future, this kind of relationships will become the only way in which people will genuinely relate with other individuals again, or at least, with a person with whom they can build and have a meaningful connection with, a greater purpose. Today, being part of a community, having a shared religion, shared history, shared political ideology and so on, it just does not seem to be fulfilling enough. So, we keep more faithful to our fellowships than to ‘our community’. We keep faithful to a group of individuals with whom we feel more akin through what we do, our consideration of the ultimate purpose of our doings and finally, where a true feeling of friendliness can arise, as a mere eventuality. This last circumstance fulfills the final and fourth element of our Fellowship Equation, it is the cherry on the cake.   

And while we keep anonymous to the rest of the members of our community we do not experience loneliness. Belonging to a meaningful fellowship is better than to live in a trifling community, where individuals feel disconnected. Loneliness is not the state of being alone but losing individual meaning and understanding. Fellowships are necessary to believe in the power of our ‘small actions’ to achieve an ultimate purpose. We live in a world not full of indifference but anonymous and indirect fellowships which have allowed us to evolve. So, when we acknowledge the existence of such fellowships we do have signed up to a higher level of human existence, allowing its very evolution. We need to be a part of the equation and conceive that our meaningless worldliness is much more meaningful than we thought!

Ironically, just as the story of Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring is a fantasy adventure, this article has shown that the rethinking of the very word fellowship, can be, but most importantly result on, a fantasy adventure too. Don’t you think?

This article was written by Giselle Vega