Author: Damien Friedlund
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #151
Intimacy is like a drug. If you’re brave enough to take a taste, you’ll get high. By intimacy, I mean honesty. To practice honesty, we expose ourselves, make ourselves vulnerable. If my friend knows that I look at internet porn, once aspired to become a billionaire, and am attracted to his partner, and he still loves me, then I have overcome one of humankind’s worst fears. If he loves me more because he knows me that much better, then we have reversed a basic human dynamic much of society takes for granted: that we will tell the truth and lose love directly because we did so. When my secrets are no longer secret, and I am loved in spite of them, or even because I have shared deeply, intimately, I am free. It’s my experience that the most powerful social and emotional bonds are created by this process.
When I was 30, I joined a rather extreme community (some might call it a “cult,” though FIC discourages use of this ill-defined, usually pejorative label) because I could see, upon visiting them, that the 40-odd members had some kind of powerful family-like love between them. They so casually expressed affection with playful, light touch. Because of loneliness and isolation in my life, I readily gave up my unappreciated autonomy and what few worldly goods I possessed to gain a chance to experience this other-worldly kind of connection. I was not disappointed, though the path towards intimacy was not a clear one. After a couple months of pleasant warm social interactions while performing simple rural labors such as harvesting potatoes and milking goats, two of my closest new companions took me aside in the hay room of the goat barn to let me know, to my horror, that I wasn’t working out in the community. After years of solitary, ambitious toil in large cities, I was thoroughly enjoying my new, rich social life among 40 seeking souls in rural America. The problem they told me was that I was hiding myself behind the mask of my personality.
I had no idea what they were talking about. What did they mean that I was lying from deep within my personality? I had thought I had been so congenial, so willing to work hard, so open to what this new strange but powerful communal life had to offer. I was distraught at the prospect of my return to the mean streets of mainstream America. They told me that they could tell that I was hiding and lying, that they did not feel close to me in the way that I imagined I was close to them. The only way to stay was to come clean and honest, tell them about my real feelings about the pain they said they could feel right beneath the surface of my persona. I dug into my memory trying to excavate some childhood (their suggestion) wrong that could possibly redeem me in their, and apparently the whole community’s, eyes. The best thread I could pick at from the garment of my life was pain I had experienced in high school, heavy ostracism, that led to me retreating emotionally, becoming much more guarded in the way that I expressed myself. I was 32; high school seemed so long ago. I had thought that pain was safely discarded in the past. Perhaps, I wept, the pain of those experiences, a cruel taunting that went on for several years while I was marooned at a chilly New England boarding school, was what they were looking for. I had never voluntarily told anyone about those years. Bingo! My friends yanked at the thread of my story until the whole garment of that old pain lay in a pile of thread at my feet. I had never told my family or any of my friends outside of prep school about this painful part of my life. I had just tried to bury it and forget about it.
Later that day, I related my sad tale to an audience of the entire community. Crying, expressing my emotions, in front of everyone led directly to my acceptance and success in this community. Reflecting on the experience, I know I was, consciously or unconsciously, being recruited into what some call a “cult,” but the social transaction that was taking place was one of the most important events that has occurred in my life. By revisiting the painful chapter from my past, which I had long relegated to a mental dustbin, I regained a measure of my youthful enthusiasm, the innocence and naivete that had been crushed at prep school. Now I profited socially by undoing the layers of defense and protection I had built up over the years. A fundamental human dynamic of fear and truth was reversed. The truth—that I was treated as, had been, a loser in high school—did not lead to people continuing to reject me. On the contrary, the revelation led to profound empathy and my acceptance into a community and a way of life I craved.
The important lesson I learned was that revealing the truth led to love and intimacy because sharing it was a form of love and intimacy. With intimacy as the payoff, honesty, both emotional and intellectual, became my new religion. Though the community was not sustainable over the long term for myself and for almost everyone else—how could it be sustainable, when the religion of honesty came up against the practically inevitable desire for autonomy?—the lesson imparted, that honesty rather than strategy would lead to love and intimacy, has, for me, never diminished. I learned how to breathe a healthier, more powerful atmosphere, and I would continue to seek that air, choosing to live where it flourished.
But can we always be honest, and expect to receive the love and intimacy we crave? Unfortunately, no. I’m writing this article anonymously. For professional reasons, I do not want my colleagues to be able to Google my name and read about my past experiences or know details about my personal life. My professional life, for better or worse, is not the appropriate context for expressing myself honestly or seeking intimacy, except in individual doses that I control. There is some truth to the common perception that if we are truly honest we will be crushed. We cannot expect those who hardly know us, and who did not choose to work in the world with us, to respond favorably to unusual and uncommon expressions of honesty. Most people in impersonal situations just want our social interactions to go smoothly. Practicing an unusually high degree of honesty will not make one’s interactions go more smoothly. Quite the contrary, it will point out the hard work that building intimacy requires, and is likely to make them very uncomfortable. The joke phrase we hear so often, “Too much information!,” will assume a new air of seriousness. If, for any of the parties, the goal of the social transaction is other than intimacy, then honesty has a limited role to play.
So, what contexts are the best for seeking intimacy? Not surprisingly, in family and community, we have the best chances for building deep intimacy. Despite the faults of the community at which I took my crash course in honesty, the degree of intimacy practiced there was exceptional. That’s what attracted me in the first place. When I left, I knew I would seek that intimacy in a more sustainable context.
I researched intentional communities and I ended up living in another rural one where 30 people, in addition to gardening, building, practicing permaculture, and running a conference center, met weekly for several hours specifically to cultivate connection and build intimacy. On paper, the situation seemed the perfect place to continue my quest for communal intimacy. And I did make strong connections. Many of the members of this intentional community practiced a high level of honesty and experienced a deep intimacy with each other. But this community of intention, over time, was hardly more sustainable than the group I had left. Over the years I have seen every member I knew leave to meet some need they could not meet there. Most often members left to pursue a professional ambition or to seek and cultivate personal relationships. Although intentional communities often have built the social structures to encourage honesty and to promote intimacy, like meetings and rituals devoted specifically to this purpose, they are usually, nevertheless, challenged to hold on to members.
Most communities are not big enough to foster enough loving partnerships. People usually want to find someone with whom they can fall in love. A population of 30 people, many already partnered, is rarely enough to provide a suitable variety of potential partners. Fifty unattached people is closer to what I imagine would be the lowest possible number of members of an intentional community that would be likely to be able to hold on to members for social reasons alone. Though communal intimacy is a powerful draw, loving partnership, along with meaningful vocation, is the fuel that powers most peoples’ lives. Unfortunately, most people are drawn to intentional communities because they believe in the values of the community, the mission statement, and they are attracted to the lifestyle the members live. But we don’t really choose our friends, lovers, and partners by such criteria. Attraction tends to work much more mysteriously, or at least eccentrically, than matching values and lifestyles, though these factors certainly come into play. Though the process of deepening honesty and building intimacy with any willing like-minded person is thrilling, at least for extroverts, most seekers of communal intimacy long to do so with their best friends, those to whom they are most attracted. Ultimately, I believe, profound intimacy springs from “affection,” not “intention.” The good old-fashioned chemistry of attraction and affection is more likely to create the incentives that will galvanize individuals to overcome the inevitable challenges that come with relationship building, community building, intimacy building.
I left that community to pursue a professional goal, and eventually I ended up drawn to another communal experiment, this one smaller and urban. I moved in with a partner and her extended family consisting of an ex-husband/co-parent and their two children and another long term member of the community. With room for 10 members, I hoped we could foster a community of affection that would provide the foundation for life in a beautiful and stable community of intention. I believe that goal may be possible, but we were not successful. My partnership was not as solid as I had hoped, and when it broke up, and when we both fell in love with new partners, though we were still friends, our new social lives did not lend themselves to building the degree of intimacy I believe is necessary to create a “community of affection.” My energy flowed across town to where my new partner lived and where many of my best friends ended up living. The point of offering these details is to show to how much fluidity our lives are subject, and the difficulties this condition places on the building of a community. And we were middle-aged, slowing considerably down. Try to build a solid anything with a group of young people. It might be that a community most likely to thrive would be comprised of retirees approaching senior citizenship. You think I’m joking, but the older age demographic has the best qualifications for creating stable community.
I’m presently involved in an extended family of sorts, non-residential, but quite intimate. Our average age is 54, including those in our 40s and our 60s. We’re financially stable, more geographically stable than most younger people, and we have the time to connect and do things with each other, when we want to. What, exactly, it is that we want to do with each other has emerged as our biggest challenge. When we first realized that we were a “community of affection,” we didn’t exactly intend it, and we were all so thrilled. At last a community, no larger than a big nuclear family, in which we all really liked each other. We shared and shared. We helped each other through all sorts of knotty personal issues with each other and within our various partnerships and friendships. But the first blush of love wears thin in a group, even a small group, just as it tends to in a partnership of two. Differences clarify.
At the beginning of this essay, I put forward a definition of intimacy based on honesty, or shared emotional experiences. But honesty is a game in which the ante is continually being raised. It’s not easy, or necessarily sustainable, to put the brakes on honesty, to say, “only this honest, and not any more so.” Don’t all relationships, whether comprised of two or 20, tend to chafe against their limitations? I don’t know whether those with whom I feel most intimate, by my own definition, those with whom I must express myself as honestly as I am able, will agree to meet me in a place in which we are both vulnerable, in which we both show each other our naked and imperfect souls. There is no guarantee that honesty will be reciprocated, that others, even those closest to me, will share my notions of intimacy. I don’t need everybody I love to believe in the religion of honesty, but relationships among people who believe in different degrees of emotional sharing come under a pervasive strain. Relationships are almost like sharks: they don’t have to keep moving to survive, but if they’re not moving forward there is a high likelihood that they’ll move backwards. And receding relationships, even if the recession turns out to be merely seasonal, are particularly awkward creatures with which to play.
Though our family of old fogies is relatively stable, we may not blaze new trails towards greater intimacy. What we already have, which I hope will continue to be extraordinary, may be as much we get. If our collective age is the key to our success as a “community of affection,” it may also be our limitation. Old dogs may not be capable of learning new tricks, new ways of being with each other. It’s often quite difficult to tell whether we’re creating a new way of being intimate, or whether we’re just holding each others’ hands on the long, inevitable walk towards death. But I suppose that is a rather intimate stroll.
Over the past six months, my partner has been more honest with me about my dysfunctional behaviors, themselves manifestations of my selfishness or self-centeredness. She calls me out on things I say or ways that I act of which she says she would not have made an issue in years past. She realizes she must be honest with me or the foundation of our relationship will be corrupted. In actuality, we will have no relationship, even if we are living together and are sharing the logistics of our lives. In turn, I really must hear, must receive, what she is sharing, if I value our relationship. To resist her emotional truth would likewise nullify our relationship. Whether I can change my behaviors, heal my dysfunction, is another question, but I must, at least, deeply respect what has been bravely offered if we are to move forward, to continue to build intimacy. Each of these decisions to hear each other’s truth is individual. We do not know if it will be heard, reciprocated, or if its sharing will change our dynamic.
Despite my quest for intimacy in partnership and community, I realize the most important decisions about intimacy—in my opinion, how to pursue honesty—will have to be made alone and stand alone, whether reciprocated or not. Just as the essential decisions affecting my partnership, I believe, are individual, decided by each of us, the future of our communal family will come down to individual decisions about what each of us wants and is able to express. Ultimately it is quite ironic that intimacy—honest, deep sharing between people—is expressed, both in partnerships and communities, by individual actions.