Committing to Community for the Long Term: Do We Have What It Takes?
(Adapted from the November 21, 1998 keynote address at the FIC’s Art of Community weekend conference, Willits, California)
Two years ago, i made a personal covenant with a place and a group of people with whom I thought I would be involved for the rest of my life. At the very end of the 1996 annual fall retreat of the Shenoa Owners’ Association, also known as the Shenoa Land Stewards, those of us who remained on-site conducted a personal recovenanting session. For my recovenanting, I used the traditional words of the marriage vows. I committed to Shenoa for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in illness and in health, until death do us part. Some of the others present made equally strong commitments. I was especially impressed with the choice of words of one man. He said, “I commit to Shenoa without reservation.” Think about that—”without reservation.” To me that means holding nothing back. Closing all the escape routes. And being fully there with your whole being.
I came away from this session—attended by less than half of the membership—happy, even though the earlier part of the retreat had been extremely difficult. Shenoa was facing difficulties, and conflicts, fear, distrust, and divisions were arising within our membership. But I was convinced that if even a handful of us were really committed wholeheartedly for the long term, we would find a way to survive and even thrive.
I was wrong. One year later, each of us who had been in that recovenanting session and every other co-owner in good standing voted unanimously to put our beloved 160 acres of Shenoa on the market. In essence, we decided officially to begin to end the dream that we call Shenoa, a dream in which we had invested enormous amounts of time, energy, and money. People had stretched themselves, really stretched themselves. Financially, emotionally, and energetically, many of us, including some of the staff, went to the limit. Even with this level of commitment, we were not able to pull off the dream for more than 10 years.
We accomplished a lot in a decade. Shenoa developed a marvelous organic garden, a successful garden apprenticeship program, and a program that provided fresh, organic produce to food pantries in urban areas. In the movement toward sustainable, natural construction, Shenoa became a pioneer, building California’s first code-approved, load-bearing straw bale building, enabling many others in the state to build with straw bales. Shenoa also developed and ran courses on sustainability and a thriving ElderHostel program.
Despite these accomplishments, the dream did not last. So, what does this sad story say about commitment? Does it mean you shouldn’t get committed? “Better not get involved, it might end.” Does it mean we Shenoans didn’t have what it takes, or maybe we weren’t committed enough or we weren’t committed in the right way? Or perhaps other mysterious or not-so-mysterious factors led to our demise? I could go on for hours about what went wrong at Shenoa, but that’s not what this piece is about. I would like to share what I learned about commitment from this Shenoa experience. The learning has been profound, and I’m not sure there was any other way I could have grasped these lessons.
Forms Change Even When Commitment Remains Strong
The big insight I arrived at from my Shenoa experience is that commitment to a particular form—”until death do us part,” to quote the traditional marriage vows—is a trap. It’s an illusion. It’s like trying to hold on to a wave in the ocean and get this wave to stand still for you so you can be comfortable and familiar with it. Forms change. They need to change, or else the organisms they embody become rigid and dead. I’ll bet if you are a member of a long-term community—or if you ask any member who’s been in community for 20, 30, or more years—you know that your community has died at least once or twice and been reborn, through a painful labor, into new form, even if your community has kept the same name and stayed in the same place for all these years.
One community that comes to mind is The Farm in Tennessee. I visited there in the early 1980s and thought: “This place is not going to make it.” The Farm was going through especially difficult times. As I understand it, a core group of members took a hard look at The Farm’s finances and structure and decided that, to survive, the community had to completely change its membership requirements. Members had to figure out ways to sustain themselves if they were going to live on the land—they couldn’t just hang out at The Farm and let “mama community” sustain them. Evidently, a lot of people left. Those who stayed reworked the finances and structure, and developed fresh missions and new approaches to implementing these. From what I hear, The Farm is a stable community now, engaged in, among other things, exciting demonstrations of what an ecovillage looks like and can do.
Another example is Sirius community in Massachu-setts. When Sirius was founded in the late 1970s, the community bound itself to a fairly strict ideology of communal living. Members pooled all their income and shared from a common pot. They generated a common vision and, to help implement this, they meditated regularly as a group, working on their personal and interpersonal issues, and doing their best to remove any obstacles to manifestation. Yet, in those early years, the members, collectively, were barely able to generate enough money for survival. They kept asking spirit, Why are we in this downward cycle of poverty? Why can we barely afford to buy coats for our children in winter? Finally, they realized that it may not be their attitude but their structure, especially the economic system they had developed. The members changed to a system that combined communal holding of properties with private enterprise. Within a couple of months, they experienced enormous surges of creativity and generated income much more easily, and their endeavor began thriving.
What I’ve learned through my experience at Shenoa and through these other examples of cooperative living is that it’s not enough simply to be committed. We have to look at what we’re committed to. If we’re committed to a rigid form or a fixed ideology, we might be doing more harm than good to the whole endeavor. Or, we may be committed to a form that was effective for awhile but now needs to change.
Hospice Work for a Dying Organization — Another Form of Commitment
When I first joined in that vote to put the Shenoa property on the market, a part of me thought: “Oh my God, have I broken my commitment? Have I shattered those marriage vows I made only a year ago? How can I ever talk again about community and commitment? I’ve lost my credentials. I’ve blown it.” Now I look at the situation differently. I realize that my experience with Shenoa, my going through almost the entire life cycle of this endeavor from birth to death, gave me insights about commitment that I would never have received if Shenoa were still growing and thriving. I was not breaking a commitment but keeping my commitment, “until death do us part,” to Shenoa.
As financial and other problems arose, I began looking much more clearly at the structure as well as the essence of Shenoa. I began relating to Shenoa not just from the heart but also with my discerning head. Some had been doing this much longer than I. Over time, more and more of us came to see that the form was no longer working. I finally grasped that, if we continued on, trying to cobble things together and borrow more money—or whatever it took to keep the doors open—we would be hurting a lot of people. More and more of those invested in Shenoa, financially and emotionally, would no longer be able to afford the cost. I came to the decision that, to stay in integrity with myself, the others, and the land, I could no longer push the group to try to carry on in the face of impossible odds. Such behavior, at that point, would be neither courageous nor compassionate. I also came to see that I wasn’t breaking my commitment to Shenoa by agreeing to sell the property. I was breaking through denial. And I was moving into a different phase of commitment. Finally, I was acknowledging that the organism I had vowed to stay with “in sickness and in health, until death do us part” had contracted a terminal illness. My commitment now called me to become a hospice worker for Shenoa. I and others who have chosen to stay involved during this terminal phase have the opportunity to show our love for the dream—and the form—by helping Shenoa die with as much grace and dignity as possible. Being a hospice worker for a dying organization is not a well-trod path. I certainly stumble now and then as I attempt to walk it. Yet any of you who have helped someone die know that hospice work can be a beautiful expression of commitment.
Not every participant in the Shenoa endeavor views the process as I do. Some, no doubt, believe that we should have begun the wind-down process earlier, while others feel passionately that we should have tried harder and carried on longer. A few might even consider the hospice-worker metaphor a delusion that helps some of us feel better about what we’re doing. For me, the greatest challenge lies in acknowledging our differences of perspective, continually refining mine based on new information, and, in my mind, not turning those who view the situation differently into fools or monsters.
Ego-Death at Shenoa, or, the Spiritual Value of Adversity
In its dying, Shenoa has giving me a precious gift—a pearl beyond price. Acting as hospice worker for this beloved organism has opened my heart and cleared my mind to an extent I had not known before, while, at the same time, revealing how easily my heart returns to a closed position and my mind fogs over. Such positive outcomes have been hard won.
Letting go of the dream of Shenoa has been a gut-wrenching, heart-rending experience. It has called me to look at the darkest corners of my psyche, at my deepest shadow. I have been tempted to point fingers, and at times have. A part of me would love to find someone outside myself to blame. I’ve had to look at what my scapegoating tendency reveals about myself. I have had to watch one beautiful ego-illusion after another crumble.
I realized just how ego-attached I was to the form of Shenoa. Shenoa was my future. It was my demonstration model — the place where I would live out what I wrote in my first book on community and the place that would provide material for future books. In my heart, I had dedicated myself completely to Shenoa and soon planned to live and work there full-time. I believed that being involved with this visionary endeavor was my God-given destiny. Painfully during the dying process, I began to realize that my dedication to this vision was not as purely altruistic as I initially thought. A good part of my identification with and devotion to Shenoa was ego attachment. I wanted to make a name for myself and Shenoa. When I realized that Shenoa was coming to an end, I had to look at every one of the illusions my ego had constructed around this dream. I had to ask: “Who am I? What am I committed to now? What is commitment, really?” And I’ll tell you, the freedom that came with facing these questions and shedding these illusions—as painful and humbling as the process was—is a pearl beyond price.
Community does this to you. If you want to be on a spiritual path, if you want to make great breakthroughs, stay in your community or join one or create one, because it will be a great teacher. It will be a stern teacher in many ways. Dedicating yourself to community—or to any collaborative endeavor—is a tremendous ego-breaker-downer in the best sense. If you let it, this commitment will open your heart, allow your mind to see clearly, and free you from illusion.
What Commitment Means—and Why Love Is Not Enough
Commitment is the willingness to be wholeheartedly engaged and fully honest with yourself and others for the long term. It means staying engaged and honest through good times and hard times, order and chaos, harmony and conflict. Commitment means using discernment: discernment about when telling a particular truth would be helpful and when it wouldn’t, and then about when, by holding back certain things, you are hurting your soul in a way that isn’t good for you and that won’t be good for others. The only guide I’ve found to knowing when to speak up and when not to is personal integrity. When you sense you can stay in your integrity while not saying anything about a situation, you’re probably being discerning and wise in holding back. But if you feel that you’d have a hard time living with yourself if you stayed quiet — that this would undermine your integrity — then the discerning thing to do is to speak up.
Commitment also means—and this is the piece that I’ve learned from the dying of Shenoa—being willing to disengage from a particular form when that form is no longer serving yourself, the others, or the larger whole. It means being willing to disengage when you can no longer stay in integrity with yourself while staying in that particular form. You may be able to make changes in the form so you can stay in integrity in it—or you may have to let the whole thing go.
The Buddhists say we need two wings, the wing of truth and the wing of love. Commitment has these two aspects: being wholeheartedly engaged and being fully honest. Some of us tend to be better at one than the other. The love part of commitment is about being present, giving, receiving, surrendering to the process, opening your heart, and experiencing oneness. But love alone is not enough—it must be joined by the discerning mind, by truth. The truth part of commitment requires taking a clear-eyed look at what’s working and what’s not working. It involves analyzing, structuring, experimenting with the structure, and restructuring when necessary. In my involvement with Shenoa, I didn’t have a problem engaging wholeheartedly, but I did have difficulty seeing clearly. It took me a long time to grasp the consequences of certain aspects of the complicated structure that gave form to Shenoa. After thinking: “We have to be able to make this work, we have to, we have to,” I finally got how many people it would hurt, including myself, my husband and our relationship, and many other people. When I got that, then I knew in integrity what I had to do.
What Commitment Does Not Mean
The notion of commitment is misunderstood in our culture. I’d like to break through a few stereotypes about it. First of all, commitment is not the same as duty. It’s not gritting your teeth and bearing with a relationship when your heart is no longer in it — or when you’re no longer able to tell the whole truth about yourself and the relationship. It’s not about some “should.” Commitment comes from within. It is a free choice of your heart. We’ve all seen marriages that last for 50 or 60 years in which the partners have hardly spoken to one another for the last two decades. That might be a long marriage in its legal form, but, to me, that’s not an alive, authentic commitment.
Commitment is also not about sacrificing yourself in the sense of acting in self-destructive ways. It’s not hanging in there until your health is depleted or your bank account is empty or you’ve lost most of your friends. It’s not about burning yourself out. Commitment is to yourself and your own well-being as well as to the well-being of others and the whole. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be in good enough shape to be available to others for the long term.
Commitment is not a trap. By its very nature, commitment is always a free and powerful choice. It’s one that you review and renew regularly. It is not a one-time event. The vows I made to Shenoa two years ago in the recovenanting session were not cast in stone. Neither are the vows a husband and wife take on their wedding day, or community members make when initially forming their community. The stories above about The Farm and Sirius attest to this. The particular form a commitment takes needs to change over time to stay alive.
Commitment is also not for sissies. Commitment is not for those who hang in there only as long as it’s nice and smooth and harmonious and who leave when it gets messy—or withdraw into themselves, or accommodate at all costs. It is not about always going along with others to keep things running smoothly. Authentic commitment requires standing up for your truth, but not in an aggressive or manipulative way. It’s not about blaming others as soon as things go wrong or trying to take over control.
What Commitment Requires
Long-term commitment to community — or to a partner or friend — requires knowing yourself and the others, seeing yourself and them clearly and loving what you see. It’s about acceptance and forgiveness; being open and vulnerable; generating trust and intimacy; and having firm, clear boundaries. The last two aspects may seem contradictory. You may wonder whether firm boundaries prevent intimacy. Actually, the opposite is true. People in a committed couple relationship or a committed community are like cells in an organ of the body. The cell requires a cell wall, a clear boundary, to perform its function in the organ. But that cell wall is smart; it’s discerning. It knows what to let in and what to keep out to stay healthy and functioning. It demonstrates love and the truth working hand in hand.
Commitment also requires being courageous, being willing to stand up and speak your truth in integrity. It requires having patience and perseverance, and being there, fully engaged. Sometimes it also means not being there, knowing when you need time out for yourself and taking a personal retreat for renewal so that, when you return to your partner or your community, you can be fully engaged once again. Commitment is about finding balance. It’s not about working all the time, just as it’s not about playing all the time, either. It’s about working, playing, and—to use a religious term—praying together. I use the word “praying” to indicate any kind of common practice that connects you with a larger whole. This might be a spiritual practice, or—for groups without an overt spiritual orientation—it could be a psychological practice, or an ecological practice. Finally, commitment involves doing all of these with joy and humor. It means lightening up at times.
Building community, I believe, is one of the hardest things we can do today. It is also one of the most important. Without learning and practicing the art of living simply and sharing resources, we will not be able to reverse the ecological destruction that’s going on. I don’t think I have to say more about that, other than that sharing is hard. Agreeing on a common vision and mission is hard. Carrying it out is harder still. You have to deal with differences. Twenty-five years ago I decided to share my sweet little car, at that time a 1967 Volvo sedan, with a dear friend of mine. It was a disaster. She and I had totally different ideas about how to maintain a car and when to spend money on it. If we hadn’t stopped sharing after a year or so, we probably wouldn’t be friends today. At that time we weren’t very good at working through our differences.
So it is darned hard to build community and practice sharing and work through differences. Any of you in community, even if you’re sharing a house with just one other person, know how hard it is. This is where the commitment comes in: being willing to hang in there, to work through the differences, to listen to the other person’s side, to share your own truth, to work it out. I had problems just sharing a car with a friend! Think about living in a residential community where you have a mortgage, buildings to take care of, childcare issues, food issues, where everyone has different child-rearing and food ideologies. Oy vey, the problems are legion!
What I can now say is that the payoffs are also legion. These can come in the form of simple pleasures: eating delicious meals together with produce from your garden; cultivating, planting, and weeding that garden as a team; sharing deeply from your heart in circles and councils. The payoffs can also come from the spiritual work of recognizing and shedding your ego-illusions. To reap these rewards you do need to engage fully. If I had not jumped into the Shenoa experience with both feet and with my heart on my sleeve, I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much out of it. If I had stood on the sidelines and kind of dipped my toe in now and then, Shenoa would have come and gone, and while other Shenoans were living fully, learning from their mistakes, and achieving breakthroughs, I would still be on the sidelines, safely and boringly the same as I had been 10 years before at the beginning. So I have no regrets about jumping in completely and engaging myself fully with Shenoa. If I had it to do over, I would engage even more fully. Next time I’d balance the business meetings with more time relating to the land and the people in non-task-oriented ways.
Making a full-out commitment to community is worth the effort, whether the form that emerges lasts two years or 200 years. Without engaging wholeheartedly and honestly for the long term, you’re going to miss out on a lot. You’ll learn and grow at a snail’s pace. You’ll miss out on the soul-satisfying experience of bonding with others in a healthy way, receiving their support and encouragement, and accomplishing together something challenging. Until you are committed, you are not going to generate the power for real social transformation. What you can do and be together, when aligned in love and truth, far surpasses anything you can do and be alone.
National organizations that offer workshops/trainings:
- The Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC), RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge MO 63563, USA. Tel: 660-883-5545. Email: [email protected], http://www.ic.org/fic/
- The Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE), PO Box 17210, Seattle WA 98107, USA. Tel: 888-784-9001. FCE’s workshops help you learn about community building through a group process based on the work of Dr. M. Scott Peck.
- McLaughlin, Corinne and Gordon Davidson. Builders of the Dawn: Community Lifestyles in a Changing World. Shutesbury, MA: Sirius Publishing, 1986.
- Peck, M. Scott. The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.
- Shaffer, Carolyn R. and Kristin Anundsen. Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support and Connection in a Fragmented World. Tarcher/Putnam, 1993.
Carolyn Shaffer is the coauthor of Creating Community Anywhere (Tarcher/Putnam, 1993), and has been involved in pioneering collaborative endeavors for 30 years. For 12 of these years she was active in the co-ownership and governance of Shenoa Retreat Center in northern California. Since 1987, she has also conducted a private practice in clinical hypnotherapy and has happily practiced the art of commitment with her husband, Sypko Andreae. Currently, Carolyn is writing a series of books about living with commitment. Contact her at: Growing Community Associates, PO Box 5415, Berkeley CA 94705, USA. Tel: 510-869-4878.