tipping sacred cows in the search for community

I often tell people that there’s a balance between my “hippie” side and my “punk” side.  My “hippie” side like to love and be accepting of everyone as they are, and my”punk” side likes to ask provocative, sometimes uncomfortable questions capable of creating cognitive dissonance in otherwise self-satisfied people who are convinced they’ve found an answer.

So the punk side of me is doing the typing today. But the agent provocateur is actually Carolyn Baker, the author of a book I’m reading called Navigating the Coming Chaos–A Handbook for Inner Transition.  (And of course the graduate student in me immediately feels obliged to make the proper APA citation.  Creepy.)

This statement she made got me to do a lot of thinking:

“When attempting to create a living community…[people] soon discover that civilization has so programmed us to live individualistic, isolated, self-absorbed lives, that living harmoniously in community with others requires unimaginable amounts of time and energy for addressing all of the internal inhibitors to it.  From my perspective, it is one thing to need interdependence and quite another to simply want it.  At this moment in history, we may have a deep longing for interdependent community, but we don’t yet require it for survival.  In that sense, community is still somewhat of a luxury, and because it is a luxury, our style of living with other human beings is a manifestation of our civilized programming.  When our lives become thoroughly contingent on interdependence, we are like to find ourselves taken to the next level of experiencing community–a level which most people cannot now access even with the best intention and effort.”

Dang, that’s a heavy statement.

Having lived in community for over one-fourth of my life, I agree with many things that Baker said. After nearly twelve years of community living, I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface as to what community is all about. While there’s a lot in my life that has been enriched by community living, and a lot I’ve learned about myself, the level of connection with other people that I’ve idealized has not really come to pass.

Living in community is an effort to reverse a trend of personal isolationism in America that has lasted perhaps two or three hundred years.  I think this isolationist trend is a product of the American frontier mentality–the desire to break away from things we feel hold us back, and to create our own worlds independent of that..  I can’t criticize such efforts–they often are necessary.  Doing so has made it easier for many people to break with unhealthy surroundings and excessively rigid spiritual and religious patterns.  But after breaking off these things, what do we have to replace it with?

When I lived in Chicago, I went to a few meetings of organizations trying to start new co-housing communities.  The meetings focused exclusively on the physical structure of the co-housing units and it wasn’t hard to feel an undercurrent of frustration within the group.  To say that they were missing the point is, I believe, an understatement.  Co-housing in this setting felt like just another New Age toy, affordable only to those with the disposable income for it.  The building design of a co-housing community is quite relevant, but it is folly and a reflection of our excessive materialism, to pretend that a building is the most important component of creating community.

A sense of practicality mixed with a little undercurrent of rebellion motivated me to try a completely different experiment in Chicago between 1996 and 2001.  I decided to initiate my own efforts to start a community–but this time focusing completely on the connection between our hearts and completely setting aside the question of a building.  This “Ravenswood Gathering,” as we called it consisted of five of us who lived in the same neighborhood who wanted to build community among ourselves.  We did this by meeting every two weeks and doing one of three things–a social event, a work project, or a meeting where we would check in with each other.  It worked quite well in many ways, and lasted for about five years.  Ultimately, though, the group drifted apart.  Our lives got consumed by other things, and my longing for community got to the point where I started seriously considering co-op living–first in Chicago, and then here in Madison.

Having our day-to-day lives consumed by work and other interests puts a damper on community here in the co-ops as well.  But it’s not always like that.  Student life is often conducive to community–there is a greater connectedness among university students.  I’m really noticing this as a graduate student.  But it’s also true that such communities are inherently transient and tend to dissolve after graduation.  I’ve seen most co-op houses in Madison go through an equivalent of two or three complete turnovers in membership over the ten years that I myself have been a co-op dweller.  Outside of the buildings, what is being built that actually lasts?

There was a tighter community on the Global Walk for a Livable World.  This type of community was entirely different–we were a much larger community–averaging about 80-100 people, but our day-to-day life was consumed by the Walk, and there were relatively few others that crossed into our world–especially given that we were away from urban areas the overwhelming majority of the time.  As joyful, exciting, and life-transforming the Walk was, I was surprised to discover that besides me there were a large number of people–perhaps even an overwhelming majority–who also had great inner struggles while on the Walk, as we came to terms with how to relate with the people around us in new ways.  Nevertheless, the bond between us continues to this day.  There’s an unspoken deep connection between all of us that persists to this day, even if we weren’t the closest of friends during the Walk.

So that’s where I would find myself disagreeing with Carolyn Baker.  We were interdependent, but not necessarily for survival.  Though it could be argued that if we didn’t have people make sure that our food and water supplies were ample, and a support vehicle called the “Blister Bus” from where we kept our eyes open for tired walkers, and gave them a ride as needed, it could have been our survival at stake.  Nevertheless, I see this as proof community can still thrive even if the world isn’t falling apart.

Conversely, there’s no reason to assume that community will suddenly leap into being should we begin to see the Crap Hitting The Fan in our economic and political system.  Without preparing for an alternative, I think modern-day Americans will be among the least-equipped and least able in the world to adjust to the harsh new realities that I’m convinced are coming our way.  Survivalists stocking their bunkers with canned goods and ammo are but a natural extension of this frontier mentality. It is there and in other places that the American belief in self-reliance and going one’s own way alone will finally run headlong into a brick wall.

In defense of these community building efforts, I think there have been a number of experiments in  community that have enjoyed considerable success.  Slowly but surely, there is a growing body of knowledge as to how to best function in a community living setting. Such people are–in at least a few ways–relearning the wisdom of their forebearers as well as applying post-modern understandings of culture competence and tolerance to a lifestyle which, until the last couple of centuries had always been the human norm.

So the answer isn’t necessarily to walk away and stop trying to create a strong sense of community.  But as with any scientific experiment, assumptions need to be challenged and occasionally sacred cows need to be tipped (yes I am a Midwesterner) as we move to connect in both old and new ways with people around us in these uncertain times.