Wherever You Go, There You Are: Me In Community

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This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Remember the Wizard of Oz? For you youngsters, it’s the story of a young teen who is bummed about her scene. Based on an irresponsible article in High Times magazine, she eats some moldy bread and has a bad trip. After a rough night filled with singing imps, neurotic talking animals, flying monkeys, a good witch, a bad witch…all the basic Jungian archetypes, she decides to finish high school and go to business college.

Most analysts dismiss this tale as a cheesy piece of anti-drug propaganda, but I’ve always seen something deeper. To me, it’s a modern parable about the search for community. I know because I’ve lived it. About twenty years ago, I too was bummed about my scene. I had friends, a solid love relationship, a nice place to live, and even time for creative pursuits, but I still felt alone somehow. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my aloneness because the topic seemed to be a mainstay of every party and pot luck. Though there were many variations, the central theme was that the modern world was too big, impersonal, competitive, and alienating. We wanted more cooperation, communication, and connection with people around us. We longed for the return to some hypothesized village paradigm. In short, we wanted community.

After the requisite false starts, wrong turns, and utter disasters, I did eventually get involved in the creation of a small “intentional community” in which I’ve lived for the past ten years. Based on these experiences here is my top four list of things to think about when searching for that special social nest:

1. Moral Cloning. Imagine yourself in a group of people who share your identical interests and opinions. You eat the same foods, read the same books, have the same hobbies, and chew the same gum. Come on, be honest. That sounds horrible doesn’t it? Even if you could stand it, what would you learn there? Also, as a group you’d have clear strengths, but also incredible weaknesses. Now imagine a group of people who run the gamut of opinions, skills, and experiences, but still consider themselves a community. Get that going, and you’ll be on Oprah in a week, baby.

2. Consensus or Not to Consensus. After watching the winner take all football game that is U.S. electoral politics, the benefits of consensus decision making seem obvious. These days gaining the 20% of the vote (52% of the 40% of eligible voters who actually vote) is considered a “mandate” to do whatever your heart desires. Still, in a small group with limited time to devote to decision-making, the problem often isn’t agreement but actually getting things done. If someone is willing to volunteer to spearhead building maintenance or garden planning, for example, not scaring them off the task might be more important than everyone getting exactly what they want.

To take the argument a step further, if you find yourself in the position of starting a community initiative of some kind, make as many unilateral decisions as you can at the outset. We modern westerners aren’t very good at this community stuff. It’s hard enough for us to get along under a defined social structure. Asking us to make up the rules as we are trying to work out interpersonal dynamics is really pushing the envelope.

3. There Are Bad Questions. Is your idea of a perfect summer day sitting in a meeting discussing gravel prices? If not, then community may not be for you. Community means meetings, so do yourself a favor and get good at having them. I once suffered through a couple hours of a community meeting in which the group discussed what might be the law pertaining to a non-profit paying property taxes. Regardless of what your third grade teacher told you, this WAS a bad question because our opinions and theories had no access to the actual factual law in question. Be boring: have an agenda and stick to it, use Robert’s Rules of Order, set time limits.

4. Wherever You Go, There You Are. In my work, I often consult with people who have  just bought land in the area and are planning on moving here to build their dream homestead. As they outline their plans, they invariably describe the bad things about their present life and the good things they imagine for the new life they are beginning. It’s as if they will leave the bad behind and pack only the good for the move. Of course, life doesn’t work like that. You need idealism to fuel changes, but too much will catch your dreams on fire. In my opinion the quickest way to kill community is to expect it to solve your problems. If you are thinking more about what you’ll get than what you’ll give, you might be headed for problems.

As for my own situation, though it was hard work and there were rocky times, things seemed to have settled out nicely in our little community. We don’t have many meetings anymore and I often don’t see some neighbors for long stretches of time, but regardless there is a strong feeling of camaraderie that I feel with everyone in the group. When I analyze our situation, though, we really haven’t created a unique infrastructure or made any inroads into changing typical social patterns.

In fact, after all of the time and work I’ve spent on this project, I think the main thing that is different about my life now as compared to 10 years ago is my own attitude. I seem to be better able to empathize, cut people slack, and accept my own limitations. I’m even making inroads into forgiving myself for all the mistakes and miscalculations I’ve made over the years. Maybe that’s a result of living in an “intentional community” or maybe it’s just the result of living a few more years on planet earth.

Upon reflection, I think the whole “intentional community” approach might be the long way around. If you accept my opinion that the ideal community would be made up of people with the broadest cross-section of opinions, skills, experience, and lifestyles who still thought of themselves as a community, then you have two choices: either start with the goal of community and work to find the group of willing people, or accept the group of people in which you find yourself (whether a neighborhood, school, or country) and work to create the will to be a community. Though I don’t condone the use of hallucinogenic bread mold, I think Dorothy had it right. You’re community is all around you. All you have to do is see it.

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