Community is an Act #26 #cong19


Community isn’t a thing. Its an act.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Community is an act, a verb not a noun, and only exists through participation
  2. We shape and are shaped by our communities and by language online and in the real world
  3. Physical communities can protect us from online harm, possibly
  4. Enable people to participate and interact and you enable them to create and change the world

About Dermot Casey:

Dermot is a husband of one and father of three. He’s trying to live in his body as much as his head these days to find some more space. When not avoiding writing blogposts for Congregation he takes a critical look at startup ideas on a daily basis while looking to invest in early stage companies at NDRC.

Contacting Dermot Casey:

You can follow Dermot on Twitter or contact him by email.

By Dermot Casey

One email begins “We’d like to thank you and other members of our community” while another notes “as valued member of the community.” Member of the community? What are they talking about. As Inigo Montoya said “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”. It’s inconceivable that being on the end of a mailing list means I’m part of a community. If email lists that I once subscribed to, that I’ve forgotten about because Gmail hides them from me aren’t a community, what is community?

The dictionary tells me it’s a noun, a “group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” “Montreal’s Italian community” (or Dublin’s Tipperary Community). That definition leaves me unsatisfied.

Over the past few months I’ve been helping to build a fire pit for our local scout troop. The scout troop is a big part of our kids life. They’ve have learned so much, and benefitted from the generous time given by so many people over years. The project to build the firepit started late last year. A permanent spot where we can have 30 or 40 people sit together, cook and chat and share with each other. As the project kicked off and as the first few reminders came in on WhatsApp I was too busy to help out. Gym, daddy taxi service and work were useful excuses at the start.

Eventually I made time. A few hours on Saturdays shifting cubic meters of sand or cement. One day over Christmas moving a 1000 cement blocks. Slowly from a plan, to a hole in the ground, shovel after shovel, and block after block, it has taken shape. A group of parents giving time when they can. Sharing a cup of tea and sandwiches at the break. Tired and sore the next day. The good kind of sore, the kind that is earned. And that’s the heart of what community is. It is a verb not a noun. It’s not a thing. It’s not something we belong to. That’s always felt a little odd to me. Community is an act, made not given. And it is an act performed by the people in the community.

One of the most powerful metaphors I’ve come across for the human mind is that of a whirlpool. When we are alive the whirlpool of consciousness moves with force and intention. When we die the whirlpool is still. The elements of water remain but the mind is silent, gone. So it is with a community. It is a living thing. It is created in the actions of the members of the community. The school community exists in the actions of the parents and the children and the teachers. When people talk about a community dying, they are talking about the ebbing of participation. The wasting of muscles which must be exercised to be of use. Community exists in the repeated actions of the members of the community. And we ourselves are enriched and recreated through participation in the acts of community.

This participation shapes us as much as we shape the community. UCD Researcher Abeba Birbhane talks about Ubuntu idea that people are born without selfhood and acquire it through interactions with others, the Zulu proverb that ‘A person is a person through other people’ [1]. Aristotle said you are what you do repeatedly. The Ubuntu might say you are who you interact with repeatedly. It echoes what businessman Jim Rohn once said “You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” Or as my mother says. ‘Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are’.

I’ve often wondered if online communities are communities. Is the act of online conversation able to build a community? In my first job I persuaded the Head of Innovation to connect the ESB to the Internet on the basis of getting access to Usenet newsgroups. ‘People really take time to answer questions from strangers on computers?’ was his initially puzzled response. They do. Is it an act of participation? It can be.

I’ve actively participated in online groups over the years which feel similar to other communities in that they’re defined by active participation. Years ago the ‘Campaign for Trustworthy evoting’ took action into the real world in an important way. And in part I’ve been shaped by people I’ve interacted with online. As have many of us. Abeba Birbhane quotes Mikhail Bakhtin that “truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth” in conversation then we are all capable of shaping, and being shaped by in online communities.

That gives me pause. Kranzbergs first law of technology is that ‘Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral’[2]. It shapes and creates the world in new and sometimes different ways. The virtual nature of online communities causes problems. We see this in how some people are radicalised online. Particularly young men. I suspect that these are people who are searching for something, searching for a community to belong to and are not anchored in communities in their day to day life. We are social creatures As human beings community helps us in an act of becoming.

And at the same time we are worried about the death of communities. We have a fraying of community these days because we have an absence of time. People are commuting longer distances to work, and they are frequently working longer hours and there is a growing precariousness to work (the gig economy). All of this leaves us without time and without the energy to create and nurture communities. And communities take time and they take energy. The act of participation takes energy. We often default to online communities because they take less time and a lot less energy.

It is essential that we are embedded in real communities at local, national, and international levels. We are physical beings and physical presence is important. Participation bonds people together and can also anchor people. Irish communities to an extent protected against disinformation during the Repeal referendum. These mechanisms and these communities were built up over years of hard work. It would be good if we could use physical communities as a sort of inoculation against the vague online disinformation disease spread on and by Facebook and other social networks. Building networks of trust and truth. These human mechanisms are what makes the climate strike a potential for real change. Participation by millions locally, nationally and internationally. People changing by interacting and participating with each other, changing each other and changing the world.

We need to make space and enable people to become part of their own community. Whatever that community is. I look at admiration, and a little bit of awe, at Tracy Keogh and Grow Remote which is about building community and building communities of communities, online and in the real world. It is about participation and is helping people to create and recreate themselves and their communities. Like all great communities it is an act. A class act. Like Congregation itself.



Killing John Wayne #75 #cong18


Simple truths were never simple and only ever partially true.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Some ideas are like air. They are everywhere and yet we don’t notice them
  2. Culturally men have been handed some specific ideas of manhood which distorts and limits our ability to act in the world
  3. It is important to change these ideas
  4. To do so requires us to connect to and express our emotions to change the limits of our language and our world

About Dermot Casey:

Dermot is a husband of one and father of three. He’s trying to live in his body as much as his head these days to find some more space. When not writing blogposts for Congregation he takes a critical look at startup ideas on a daily basis while looking to invest in early stage companies at NDRC.

Contacting Dermot Casey:

You can find Dermot on TwitterLinkedIn and via email 

By Dermot Casey

In the end it is John or me.

I grew up with him. Saturday afternoon westerns and Sunday Matinees on the telly. Westerns and war films were like bacon and cabbage, a staple of a simple diet.  A Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa, the warmth of the house soaking into the bones while rain lashed the windows. The delight of the simple heroes on the telly. Striding across the landscape sorting out right from wrong. Strong stoical men. Their guns and their fists spoke for them. Any pain or discomfort they as my granny said ‘put it down inside of yourself…’

It’s funny what you internalise. As I got a little bit older my heroes got a little more complex. ‘Charlies War’ shaped my view of war more than any history class. And still John strode through the back of my imagination. Before Superheroes he was Batman or Daredevil, suffering and in pain but never weak. Always pushing through. No tears

That’s the model. The strong and silent type. The quiet man. An idea. Internalised and reinforced softly. So quietly and so gently the layers of sediment are laid down that you don’t even realise it. Air breathed in and out. Boys don’t cry. Boys don’t express or feel their emotions. Anger maybe. Rage. Big emotions. Occasionally. But generally. Daily. Not

The morning after my eldest son was born I went back into the hospital. When I held him, swaddled in a blue blanket, I cried. They were tears of joy and of relief. That he was well. That my wife was well. My tears mixed with that smell of a new baby. A big upwelling of emotion. I laughed. At my tears, at the joy of the moment. All-encompassing overwhelming emotion communicating the moment as a feeling of the body. Told all at once rather than piece by piece. A felt sense. A sense of what my parents felt for me. I looked at my son and the world changed. And turned and changed each time my children were born.

And yet and yet. Despite the books I’d read, despite the rejection of many manly things I was caught in web of ideas. This solid layer of our culture. Embedded in it. Imbued with it.  Don’t really think too much about how you feel. It’s a subtle and sometimes none too subtle rejection of feeling and of expressing emotion other than big ones. And in reality I lacked the language to express them. The word “fine” stands as a placeholder for a myriad of daily thoughts and feelings, mine and many others.  And now I wonder if you don’t fully feel and express emotions, if you don’t or can’t turn them into language how do you ever learn to manage them. How do you fully make sense of the world. And if you can’t make sense of it how can you fully act in it.

We’ve moved on from John Wayne. All the way to the Avengers. While Spiderman might be a more relatable than Superman (teenage angst yea!), superheroes  still offer simple answers to the simple questions.  And the grounds of society are itself shifting in many profound ways. Slowly and in the right way. And yet. And yet.  And yet there is a crisis of manhood. And an epidemic of male suicide and alcoholism. And layers of mental health problems that we are just starting as a society to deal with.  And I look at three boys and wonder how to prepare them for the world.

As society shifts we are recognising and grasping for broader and better ways of making sense of things. I think (I feel) much of this crisis is one of language and identity and emotion. I don’t think it is anything new. Simple truths were never simple and only ever partially true. Religions have looked at this problem in the past and looked for ways to fix it. Before priestly piety rolled over notion of goodness and love. And we need to work towards ideas and ways of being that account for it. Because the new pious priest of simple answers, the Jordan Petersons of this world, move to fill these gaps with the bromides of simple untruths.

So how do I kill the idea of John Wayne?  The layers of sediment have been laid down over many years. I need to peel back the layers slowly and sometimes painfully and build back in other ideas and experiences to fill it in.  With ideas that don’t reduce experience but enable us to recognise and feel and make sense of the richness of experience. If the limits of our language are the limits of our world we need to push out those limits. We need to touch and express the states and feelings of our body. In the little things. Daily. And if we do, if I do it will leave me better able to act in the world.  Because that is what it is all about. How we act in the world and how we act towards making a better and kinder world.

We are all artists. We daily painting the reality of our world in language. And we need an iridescent kaleidoscope of language to express the richness of our emotional palettes. If we don’t touch the feelings that course through us and crystallise the emotions we are left senseless and numbed. And we act poorer. A teacher told me a story about one of our boys a while back.  When asked to play a game by one of his pals he responded “I’m a very tired today and I’m a little cranky and I don’t want to play that game because I might get angry”

In the end killing John Wayne isn’t about John or me. It’s John or my kids.

The Trouble with Ideas. Some thoughts on the nature(s) of ideas. #27 #cong18


I’ve some notion that our idea of what ideas are is limited. We (and I’ve been more guilty than most) think of them as things when we should think of them more as a process. Ideas are good (can be great, sometimes awful) but can crowd out other forms of knowing and ways of being creative.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. We think of ideas as abstract things.  Think of them as verbs and processes as well.
  2. Ideas are only one way of knowing about the world and when we focus particularly on having ideas we lose the other ways of knowing and being creative.
  3. If we’re full of ideas we’ve no space to be receptive to other forms of knowing and creating new meaning. (Close the 500 browser tabs)
  4. To learn and to see anew sometimes means becoming lost first and to dwell on the wellspring of our experience.

About Dermot Casey:

Dermot is a husband of one and father of three. He’s trying to live in his body as much as his head these days to find some more space. When not writing blogposts for Congregation he takes a critical look at startup ideas on a daily basis while looking to invest in early stage companies at NDRC.


Contacting Dermot Casey:

You can find Dermot on TwitterLinkedIn and via email 

By Dermot Casey.

I started writing about “Notions” that particularly Irish reaction to ideas which aims to make sure that people are not getting above themselves –

“pilates, ‘twas far from pilates that we were raised”

“ah sur yer man has notions”

I wrote a few paragraphs of an outline, but it aside and now can’t find the outline. I haven’t a notion of where those notes went.

I was stuck. I had no idea what to write about. Brief panic as I was sure that there was an idea on ideas there somewhere. Something out there at the edge of awareness, that I hadn’t quite grasped and the harder I tried to grasp the harder that it became.  It wasn’t helped by seeing the posts going up on the Congregation website. There are lots of good interesting thought provoking ideas there.

I thought about it a little (and a lot). Looked at the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition of Idea “Gk = look, semblance, form, kind” “An archetype, a pattern, a standard”Mental image or conception” etc. (And the definition of Notion “a concept, an idea”). Not much inspiration.

Then in early October Paul Romer jointly won the Nobel Prize in Economics* for work on “the Idea of Ideas”.There is a great summary of it by Chad Jones [1] The tl;drversion was summed up by Thomas Jefferson a few hundred years ago as “He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.

Ideas. Great things, ideas. Though when you think about it ideas are a very different to things. They’re really not even things. Though we like to think about them as things.  I can have a cup of tea but can I have an idea?  If I have the cup of tea you can’t have the same cup of tea, but as Romer and Jefferson pointed out we can both have the same idea.  Playing around with the Irish word for idea brought me to the saying “bhuail smaoineamh mé” “An idea struck me” or almost literally “a thought had me”. Which is an interesting way of thinking about ideas. An almost physical process of having an idea. And maybe we can both have the idea but it’s different for each of us.

This is one of the challenges with ideas. We  think of them as things that are and can be separate from people. I am someone who spends a lot of time inside his head, inside of books looking at and thinking about ideas. As a kid my favourite place in the world was inside a library. Even now my favourite building in the world is a library (the Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire).  Libraries and books (and the internet) are a great way of expanding the mind and the horizon of the world. What could be wrong with that (aside from the 500 browser tabs I appear to have open at any point in time)?

One part of the problem is being separated physically from the world and this abstraction into pure forms. Ideas like knowledge come from interaction with the world and that is physical as well as mental and in comes in different forms mentally, emotionally and socially. Ideas can act as filter of how we see the world. Even how we see ourselves. Even the idea of an idea acts as its own filter. Go back to that definition of ideas “an archetype, a pattern”. Ideas can frame our world and frame our thinking and that’s a problem when we separate them from the context of the world. (Especially when we raise up the deftness of thought that comes from sometimes smart ideas that are decontextualized). And I think there is something critical about who we are as humans in this.

I’ll come back to Congregation 18 weighting a little less than I did last year. One of the ideas at Cong last year was Gerry Duffy asked to do one thing each of the three days over the weekend and using a little red dot as a trigger for that. My thought was to do a walk each day. I put the red dot on the back of my phone, where a year later it’s still visible, poking out from the phone cover near the camera.  The idea of walking every day translated into stopping using the lift in work and walking the three floors to my desk any number of times every day (the bathrooms in my building are on the ground floor). A year on I’m still doing. A few months later the idea translated into a regular exercise routine.

As I was thinking about the ‘trouble with ideas” I googled the phrase and got 94 results. The first result on led me to a wonderful video with Robert Rowland Smith. He similarly points out that there are other ways of knowing about the world that are equally important to ideas, that ideas keep us in our heads with abstractions that are not real that there are other sources of innovation and inspiration of art and culture beyond the ideas in our head.

Because we tie ourselves into an ideas as objects (‘the idea went over my head’, ‘I didn’t grasp the idea’ etc) we too often lose other dimensions of thought and other ways of knowing and being.  To oversimplify it we need to stop thinking of ideas as nouns and start thinking of them as verbs, as a process. Language and the ideas expressed through language don’t convey meaning, they afford meaning, in the sense that meaning as a process enacts rather than represents. Ideas and communication are about evoking meaning not transferring it, a process not a thing. That flame that is burns as a lighted taper is transferred from one person to another is different because each person, each taper is different.

We all bring our meaning. Its why a theme based on the word Ideas can evoke such rich and varied and wonderful responses from people.

Rowland Smith also brought another problem home to me. In looking at different forms of thought he describes how we need to create space for what he calls ‘the solus’ the creative energy within all of us. He also talks about the need to get away from the idea of “having ideas” and to explore the idea of being open and getting lost in something, noting the problem that “if you keep topped up with ideas you’ll never open up to receiving new things.”  To really receive you need to empty yourself out and create space first. To let the thoughts have you. And that is the real problem of my 500 open browser tabs.

I am so full so often there isn’t enough openness to really let new things in. I skim, rather than read. Pay partial rather than full attention to this. And gradually I’ve becoming aware of this. Earlier this year I’ve deleted my Facebook account and tapered my usage of twitter, though probably not enough.  And to really open myself up often I need to get stuck and stop to create some space to enable the “bhuail smaoineamh mé”

I wrote this from a place of stuckness, being a little bit lost, rediscovered some old things and found and crystallised some new ideas along the way. It’s a pattern that I have seen before but has taken me a while to really understand, to recognise and give meaning to it. To learn and to see anew sometimes means becoming lost first.

It is part of the reason that I love Congregation. Cong is a space of renewal a place to be open and to give and to receive. The first year I came to Cong I came in that right frame of mind. Receptive and open and drank deep in the meaning that was there. In the years since I’ve learned that everyone who comes to Cong has an something interesting that I can learn from it only I can get out of my own way and properly pay attention to it and to them.

Not everything will resonate but frames will be shifted, sometimes long after the weekend has ended, and a mind once stretched by new ideas never returns to its original dimensions and the soul enriched by new experiences will be forever better for it. Or maybe I’m just having notions. You’ll tell me the meaning of this piece for you.


*  Technically there is no Nobel Prize in Economics. Its full title is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel because Alfred Nobel didn’t think Economics was important enough for a Nobel but some bankers got notions and managed to link their prize closely enough to the Nobel that everyone has the idea that Nobel offered a prize in Economics.

[1] Chad Jones piece on Paul Romer’s Nobel win

Robert Rowland Smiths piece on Ideas can be found here