The Expert

Posted on October 8, 2019 by

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

Wow! This woman has it all! She’s the answer to so many of our current dilemmas! This was the community’s general (external) response when Jenny (a pseudonym) rocked up and announced her credentials. And those declared credentials were certainly impressive.

Here was a person with life experience, physically able, appreciative of communitarian ideals, looking to a longer-term commitment and what’s more, researching the benefits of community living at a high academic level.

What could possibly go wrong? What was the problem?

To my knowledge the community has held no formal debriefing of Jenny’s entrance and exit, as well as no formalized exit interview process, and so now I must speak only for me. This is especially so as I no longer live at that community. Was it my shadow―arguably my fear―that prevented me bringing into the light the orange flags fluttering in the shadow on the edges of my consciousness?

This is where community processes can support us, and here lies the imperative that we are all clear about their purpose and supportive of them. Ultimately, though, I must take personal responsibility to shine the light of awareness into my own shadowy edges.

The fluttering for me was a chance meeting I’d had with Jenny at a friend’s home years prior as well as comments from another friend who was in the same university department at the current time. I contacted both and canvassed their opinions about Jenny’s suitability as a community member. They were both non-committal―“I have no experience of her in community”―and so aptly not relieving me of my decision-making responsibility!

For me, the fluttering remained but in the absence of any immediate red flags. I fell back on giving her “the benefit of the doubt.” My fallback position was taught at my mother’s knee and much of my life I had allowed it to override my intuition without the implied caution. It’s through community living that I’ve learnt the necessity of not dismissing my intuition so readily, and to lean into our collectively (cooperatively) designed processes more trustingly. I’m certainly still exploring and learning about that.

I’m reflecting now on the processes we had agreed on in community and had previously proved worthwhile. We had a 28-day waiting period until an application for membership could be submitted, allowing both community members and applicant to get to know each other a little. Most of us can maintain a particular persona for a month, so quite often the “benefit of the doubt” approach meant that the applicant or the community discovers after that the “fit” wasn’t as neat as they’d hoped. Fortunately, in other cases, we had further processes in place that cushioned that.

Jenny spent the first month being true to her credentials, sharing with everyone the statistics and theories she’d gained from research, willingly jumping in to help with jobs that always need doing and being reasonably even-handed with her relationship-building. Interestingly, in retrospect she had a tendency to avoid deep conversations with longer-term community members.

With the confidence (not to mention wisdom) of hindsight that 28 days is a time for vigorous and clear-sighted enquiry, more than casual conversation, to take place with the intending community member. However, I think that my approach has always been to preference what I have perceived as good feelings for myself and others over uncomfortable insight, available in the shadow!

The next part of the process was that if a membership application was accepted the person could attend but not vote at community meetings for three months, with monthly review or so-called mutual feedback sessions. This time period was anticipated as being a time for the new member to observe and appreciate the current culture of the community prior to their own formalised input, ideas, and proposals being put into the community melting pot. The community’s purpose for this time wasn’t concurrent with Jenny’s ideas though.

At this time she seemed to change gears in her conversations with various people outside of meetings and brought new energy and ideas into the mix. This was certainly welcome on one level. But I began to observe growing division in our small community between the “in” crowd and others, based on what was or wasn’t being said or done. When the Jenny-led members overflowed into unapologetic impetuous action with no follow-through (use of inappropriate equipment for a non-urgent but big-impact task that resulted in an unfinished job and ruined equipment), the writing was on the wall. Most of the Jenny-faction left within the next month, leaving a large hole in the community’s energy, all within two months from Jenny’s provisional membership being accepted.

The community did not recover from the impact of the sudden loss of energy and two years later it is folding.

This is not to lay the blame at one person’s feet. If the community was not grounded enough to withstand that impact then there was a big dark shadow obscuring lots of other problems. I am considering the value of the whole experience for me, the dark and light.

During the 10-year life of the community, hundreds of lives have been touched by their encounters with it. Some stayed months or years (me), others came as visitors for a few days or just for dinner. We have felt variously welcomed and warmed as well as challenged if not confronted by different ways of doing life. In my experience the biggest challenges and hence learnings are always in relationships, and in my community life I have had the opportunity for intensive training in this!

So when I have that fluttering feeling I have a choice. I can turn away from the discomfort of it or turn to face it and examine my fears. If I turn away, I need act no further and stay comfortable…for now. If I turn toward it I have a journey of self-discovery and even more choices to make! It seems my shadow contains possibilities for expansion and previously unexamined richness.

What went wrong when Jenny arrived? She actually predicted the folding of the community if it did not change. Even now I can’t bring to mind what she said was the biggest problem. I know it felt like a scattergun attack and probably it was. But no doubt there were gems there that could have been extracted. So maybe Jenny’s arrival was simply the catalyst for some change that would have happened anyway. Would there have been a different outcome two years down the line if we had creatively and cooperatively faced our fears at that time? Probably. So now wherever I land I am seeking to do just that, for myself and those I inevitably am in relationship with in my life. My journey continues!

Joan McVilly lives in South East Queensland, Australia and her abiding interest is in community—small “c”—and what makes it. Over four decades she has explored this through direct environmental action, membership in a religious group, an environmental education centre, and Intentional Community. She currently lives in the Sunshine Coast hinterland and can be reached at joan.mcvilly [AT]

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

Leave a Reply