Community Engagement Has Healing Power: Meitheal in Action

When we work together for the good of another, we all are better for it.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

While my own heritage is a bit more Scottish than Irish, I feel a deep connection to all things Celtic, from ancient legends to contemporary Celtic music. So, last weekend, I caught a new movie on TV that was set in Ireland named, "Herself." While I don’t want to give away too much information about the plotline, during the film a ragtag group of folks came together as a community of support to help the central character get her life back together.

I may have to mumble along to the Celtic lyrics Enya sings, but a word used in the movie, meitheal, caught my ear and stuck in my mind, as a character described what it meant. The term, meitheal, was used to describe the work they were doing in support of one individual to whom they owed nothing. As the grassroots initiative was described, when we all come together as a community to help one person, not only does it help the recipient, but it also benefits every single person who provides aid. A meitheal is all about a community banding together to help a fellow member of the community accomplish a goal.

Traditionally, meitheal described an agricultural kind of task like harvesting fields of hay or getting crops in the ground. But it’s rooted in community altruism and that’s the type of practice that keeps a community thriving. The beauty of the effort to deliver meitheal is that everyone who participates in providing labor will benefit from their investment in the wellbeing of another.

The term reminds me of barn-raisings — construction events in which everyone pitches in to get a barn built in short order. It also reminds me of a personal memory.

When my father-in-law broke his hip, members of his community came together, literally overnight, to build a ramp at his house so that he would be able to enter and exit his home more easily. The morning of the build was filled with laughter, camaraderie, and sweat. But folks experienced a keen sense of belonging as they wielded their tools alongside each other. Folks also feel a sense of pride when they do a good deed for someone else and when we’re part of a group giving back, the good feelings are shared and multiplied by the sense of teamwork and altruism.

Ironically, the Irish word “meitheal” even contains the English words, “me” and “heal.” And it’s so true that when we come together to solve a problem or accomplish a goal, it feels healing for us all.

Meitheal describes the union of two important “feel good” factors. Doing someone a “solid” and feeling like part of a group both send surges of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, the “natural high” inducing neurochemicals, to our brains. The one-two punch of bonding with others and accomplishing a goal leave us feeling pretty stoked. The human body rewards us when we engage in behaviors that reflect good choices. No wonder the healing of self happens through the healing of others, right?

Another benefit of doing someone a favor is that it lowers any pressure or anxiety someone might feel in asking for a favor for themselves later on. It’s easier to ask for help from someone for whom you’ve given help in the past.

Civilization is proof that people must work together to move forward. When we all play a role in community initiatives, the pay-off includes a sense of belonging and the reward of knowing that our contribution had value.

The quarantining and isolation of the past year has shown us that human connection and social bonding are the glue that keeps each of us held together even if we must stand or live alone. Creative connections, including Zoomed in check-ins and drive-by celebrations, kept many of us from becoming unraveled. The times may be changing, but the ancient pleasure of community engagement and the sense of worth that comes from helping others remains the same.