Publisher’s Note: Facing the Hard Things

Posted on September 3, 2019 by

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

This is going to be hard to talk about. But there’s no way around it. If we’re going to figure out how to create healthy, thriving communities that are replicable models for a cooperative, sustainable, and just human society, we’ve got to talk about the hard stuff.

Intentional community is not something we automatically know how to do. We have a sense of what we want, of what’s missing, or of what’s wrong in society that we’re trying to balance or correct. We have visions, ideals, and intentions. But for the most part community is contrary to what we’ve been taught in our hyper-individualistic, profit-driven, competitive, hierarchical, exploitative, and oppressive world. Stepping onto the property of an intentional community doesn’t make all of that go away, and all of that was there when the community was formed in the first place. Individually and collectively we carry it all with us and it impacts everything we do. Intentional community isn’t just about learning what we need to learn to make a better world, it’s about unlearning too, as well as learning to see our biases and blind spots.

We’re all traumatized. Some people are more impacted by the legacy and contemporary realities of slavery, genocide, colonialism and neo-colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and global capitalism, but they affect all of us. We can correct, repair, heal, but those of us alive today will always live with those traumas. You can’t undo what’s been done. The harm done by the systems that we live with today, and by us within those systems, is generational, and it will take generations to undo. But that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands. This is the work there is for us to do, so that our children grow up with a little less trauma, and their children grow up with a little less.

It’s hard to think in these terms because of the crisis we’re in. We have to slow down, take the time to try to regain our wholeness as people, our ability to work together, our sense of belonging with each other and the natural world. We have to focus on relationships and how to relieve the stress and trauma that so many people are trying to survive every day. But does the pace of global warming allow us to slow down? On some level, no, but I would argue that we don’t have time not to slow down, because we don’t have time to not do it right.

But what does doing it right even look like? People like to talk about replicable models, but I don’t think we know what they are. I think we’ll know when there are models that start replicating. But again, this doesn’t mean we give up. It means we keep trying things. And if we’re going to get anywhere, we have to be able to talk about what didn’t work.

Of course no one wants to be seen at their worst. On some level, intentional communities are about recreating a sense of belonging. But by their nature, intentional communities, with their property lines and membership processes, are also exclusionary, and we’re all coming to this endeavor with trauma around rejection. We’re all scared of being left out, ostracized. Most of us carry with us a sense that if you knew who I really am, warts and all, you wouldn’t accept me.

This is why we have to be courageous enough to be vulnerable. Community is about sharing. Sharing takes trust. Trust takes intimacy. Intimacy takes vulnerability. We have to learn how to call in instead of call out. We have to be able to touch our own shadows and allow our shadows to be touched by others, because if something doesn’t have a shadow, how do you know it’s real? Getting real, together, is how we’re going to find the path forward.

Don’t get me wrong, we know a lot about what works in intentional community. I don’t know if we’ve figured out the “best practices” but we’ve definitely figured out some good ones, and in many respects have a pretty good idea that we’re on the right track. We’re pretty good about sharing about this stuff too, but we could be better―celebration is also part of a healthy community. At the same time, it’s not about getting mired in the muck, but we can’t be afraid to get dirty, to step into the darkness.

Part of the fear is of being stereotyped, as intentional communities already are, and sensationalized, which also happens. But we need to help the rest of society be honest too. Sexual abuse and assault of adults and children, narcisistic egomaniacs who take advantage of people, racism, sexism, LGTBQ-phobia, classism, it’s not as if these things don’t exist in every community everywhere. Pretending that they don’t isn’t helping anyone.

I know it’s hard to talk about, because so often, when something really bad happens, the community is divided about what happened and how they feel about it. The person some see as the perpetrator is seen as the victim by others, and in many cases it’s impossible to know what really happened because the only people present have different stories, and people are forced to decide whom to believe. The martyrs and the slackers just complain amongst themselves about the others. The long-term members and the new members are frustrated with each other and can’t figure out how to see each other’s perspective.

And then there’s the guy who owns the property and has lured a succession of people with the promise of being able to build their own little place, but it turns out he’s a creep or a control freak. Or there are the people who simply don’t have the skills or the wherewithal to do reasonable work, and don’t realize that they’re not doing reasonable work, which makes more work for others―and then whose job is it to tell them? What do you do when some people feel that community systems aren’t working, but others feel there’s nothing wrong and don’t want to talk, and both perspectives have some validity?

We all have our baggage. We all react in ways we wish we didn’t. We can all gain greater understanding by looking at the issues others have with us. And at the same time, we’re all tired and stressed, trying to make ends meet, trying to make it all work, and sometimes we just don’t have it in us to address the problem directly or constructively.

How do we reconcile our conflicting perspectives? How do we hold each other with compassion while still holding each other accountable? How do we come together to collectively hold responsibility for our communities? How do we appreciate each other for saying the hard things, acknowledge what’s true, add what’s missing, and also be true to ourselves and stand up against what we believe is false? We have to be willing to talk about things openly, without denial, without making each other wrong for what we say or how we say it as a way to avoid addressing what’s being brought forward.

We know quite a bit about the practice of collective decision-making. But one of the classic pitfalls is jumping to a proposed solution before the group has had a chance to discuss the problem. You end up in a that-or-not-that argument. What we haven’t developed as much is our practice of collective sense-making. How can you collectively decide what to do about a situation if you haven’t collectively made sense of what’s happening and how you got there?

Sense-making is what we need to do, as communities and as a movement of communities, about the things that went wrong, the terrible incidents we don’t want to talk about. We have to be vulnerable to build the intimacy to build the trust to be able to share about the shadow side of cooperation. I know, it sounds like a catch-22, and it is, but we have to start somewhere. We have to commit ourselves to this work, knowing that we will make mistakes. It will be hard and uncomfortable, but if we’re doing our work, willing to learn and grow, there’s no need to feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed. All there is to do is acknowledge what’s so, keep reaching for each other, look for how to reconcile and heal, and keep putting in the effort.

Deep breath. Strong and open-hearted. Here we go.

Sky Blue (sky [AT] is Executive Director of the Foundation for Intentional Community.

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

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