Community as Crucible: An Interview of Laird Sandhill
An interview of Laird Sandhill by Helen Forsey, discussing the inherent intensity of community living — the personal difficulties this can create, and the rich possibilities for rapid growth and change.
Helen Forsey: The community I live in now used to be a lot more collective and close-knit 15 or 20 years ago, but people found they had to have more distance in order to get along better with each other. They started doing less together, and now the group is very stable and friendly and mutually supportive, but loose-knit. There’s a lot more distance and independence, a kind of balance we found was necessary.
A lot of people who’ve previously lived in very close-knit communities have found that the degree of intensity, of integration with everybody else, was not sustainable for them, that they needed to get away from it. Not in order to fragment their lives or their commitment, but to have a space where they weren’t actively doing everything so closely with other people all the time.
Laird Sandhill: One of the fundamental choices that groups must make is how close they want to be; what level of engagement is desired. Is there a commitment to examining the feelings that come up around interactions in the group? Is the community willing to make this work a priority and allow time for it? I know of no more exciting product of community than the power of high-level communication and well-made decisions.
Many people would like the benefits of this work without the intensive struggle to get it. Of course, the problem is made worse by the fact that our dominant culture is hierarchic and competitive, so few of us have been raised to communicate and make decisions as equals, cooperating for mutual gain. Progress in this work is thus typically slow and hard earned. In fact, so slow that in some instances people can’t get away from it fast enough. And they’re perfectly willing, after years of honest trying, to go ahead and engage in more housework, more commuting, more of all those generally unpleasant aspects of everyday living, in exchange for not having to go to meetings! Communities have been pioneers in this work and the progress has come in fits and starts. Many good people have left community in frustration because the progress didn’t come fast enough for them. After 15 years in this work, I am sobered by the losses: the road to dynamic group process is littered with the burned-out shells of the well-intentioned, whose community spirit was broken by the “40 years in the wilderness” they perceived to be standing between their reality and the utopian dream of deep bonding and honest, heartfelt communication.
Helen: If it’s so difficult, why bother? What are the rewards of that kind of intensity, that unrelenting hard emotional and intellectual work?
Laird: I know of no better environment than intentional community for making progress on knowing yourself and knowing others. We engage in political issues through actually trying to create something — not just talking about it, but offering models of how things could be different. We’re trying to bring these issues into every aspect of our lives and to weave a whole from it all. It’s very exciting and very challenging, and it leads to a tremendous sense of aliveness — there’s nothing dull about it!
It’s like a crucible: the heat of it, the intensity. Community allows for a greater concentration of breakthroughs, and faster progress, surer progress. And yet it can also be dangerous; the hurt can be greater, the sense of being overwhelmed or betrayed. There can be this real wild swing, from joyous “Ah-hah” moments when groups surge past difficult barriers, to deep despair when the obstacles seem insurmountable and unbudgeable.
Helen: It can be sheer hell! There are dynamics that can develop, and precisely because it’s all so intense and you can’t easily get away from it, it can be as bad as anything that happens in traditional families, and that’s saying a mouthful.
Laird: Yes, it can be destructive; it’s possible to have abuses. People can get into things that they’re not capable of finding a healthy way to resolve. Sometimes people don’t belong together in a group, yet they struggle on as if the common values and agreements necessary for resolution were present. In such cases it can get nasty, especially where people are engaging in practices that they don’t know how to control and there’s no place to get away. It can be abusive and dangerous.
At times like that, a group needs to work for clarity in their common bonds, making sure that the opportunities are always there for people to grow and change. I’ve found it works best if a group moves forward only after fully considering every member’s input.For example, I once worked with a community of seven that was considering — for the third time — a proposal to alter how group finances were handled. After 15 minutes it became clear that six members favored the proposal, with one member ambivalent — not opposed, just uncertain. Unfortunately, that one person was the financial manager, and his active cooperation was essential to resolving the issue. So, while we might have papered over the ambivalence and called it a decision afer 15 minutes, instead we labored for an hour-and-a-half to get at the underlying reservations. It took that long before the person could express what was worrying him and feel heard by everyone else. After that, all seven supported the proposal and the issue was settled. Looked at one way, exploring the underlying feelings took six times longer to get to the same conclusion that we were already at after 15 minutes. For some, this is the nightmare of consensus: tortuous examination of issues, that seems to plod along inefficiently. Yet this analysis overlooks some important benefits. For one thing, implementation. The reason the issue kept resurfacing in the group was that prior decisions were weak and they were carried out halfheartedly. Think of all the time spent in grumbling about this and the meeting time to consider the same issue three times. Now that’s inefficient! For another thing, consider the effect on group morale. When an issue keeps popping up and doesn’t get resolved, people develop a defeatist attitude about it and expect poor results from further deliberations. They start to dread meetings and don’t expect their views to be heard by those holding different ones. In light of all this, those extra minutes spent dealing with the issue thoroughly can be seen for the bargain they really are.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s hard work to do this well, and it’s an ideal where we often fall short. It’s part of our struggle as a movement, even as a culture.
Helen: So the work that some of you have been researching and developing in the crucible of our communities — this group facilitation and consensus process and mediation work — is an essential part of creating workable models for social change?
Laird: Absolutely. In particular, the aspect of how to work, not just with the ideas and the architecture of meetings, but also with the emotive input that people bring to the meetings. You must work with all of it. I’ve experienced many insights in my life, where the light bulb popped on over my head, but probably no realization has been more illuminating than the power and necessity of embracing people’s feelings when doing group work. As a male traditionally raised, it has been especially difficult for me to learn to open up to emotions — both mine and others’. Yet I’m convinced that welcoming emotional expression is a necessary starting point for groups doing their best work, for people being truly present with each other and thinking clearly.
I wonder how many people have had the experience of good meetings. I run into people at some of these networking meetings who say, “I can’t believe the meeting went like that! It was so caring, so productive!” To me that’s normal now, but some people feel like it’s a dream that they’ve never experienced before. It’s great fun shattering their preconceptions, and expanding their horizons of what’s possible.
Intentional communities are in a position to contribute to the wider society far out of proportion to our numbers, because the skills we’re learning in cooperative decision making have application throughout the culture. Having gone through the crucible, we’re tempered and often able to share our experiences effectively with a wide range of others.
Helen: What do you think the future holds for intentional communities?
Laird: Our future depends on how well we work with the upcoming generations. When we get through this pioneering stage, what are our children going to do? Places like Twin Oaks, East Wind, and many other communities have very few kids actually completing their growing up experiences in community. Children may spend a few years in a cooperative lifestyle, and then issues emerge between parents and nonparents that cause the families to relocate. It’s hard to tell how much children identify with the common bonds or values of their home communities, or even the wider movement. We have much to do in defining our relevance to the next generation.
Helen: Although it sometimes feels like a failure when our kids don’t stay, there is still that very important formative year or so in community. That time can be pretty amazing for children, a total change from what they’ve had before, and that’s going to be there for the rest of their lives.
Laird: Yes, the impact can be there — the influence, even if the exposure is brief relative to a person’s whole childhood. What that will actually add up to in terms of contributions, impact on the society, who knows yet? But soon, we’ll know. Many of the kids who were born and grew up in community are young adults out in the wider society now — some forming new intentional communities. You know, my childhood wasn’t like theirs; and in very dramatic ways! I have a son who is 11 and a daughter who is four. They have spent their entire lives in community, and as they grow up, I think, “What are they going to be like? What are they going to do with their community experiences?
As far as trends in community, there are encouraging signs. Unlike a lot of us ten or 20 years ago, new groups seem more ready to ask for help right at the outset. Many in these groups don’t feel they have to do community building all on their own, and they are transcending the rugged individualism that many bring into cooperative lifestyles from the mainstream.
In the sixties and seventies, some of us got far enough out of the mainstream to try group living, but not far enough to think, “We don’t have to make this all up on our own. We can talk openly about our struggles, ask for help, and learn quicker.” That’s something my community wasn’t smart enough to do back when we started. In our supreme naivete, the four of us didn’t even think about joining an existing community. We were sure that the way to get what we wanted was to start our own intentional community. And, oh my stars! We knew so little about what we were doing! Looking back on it, I just can’t imagine how we survived. There was no end to what we didn’t know.
I see a lot of young groups now advancing much faster and more surely because they don’t fall into that individualist trap. Of course, there’s also greater access to resources today. Years ago we didn’t know where to turn for help, and now there are many useful directories, catalogs, tapes, and books. That’s exciting! The prospects are very encouraging for the development of more and more intentional communities, each serving as a crucible for the tempering of different possibilities for social evolution.
About the Author
Helen Forsey was a long-time member of Dandelion in Ontario, until that community reformed as Stonehedge in 1991. While at Dandelion Helen traveled among other intentional communities active in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) and she has known Laird for years through FEC events and labor exchange visits. Helen now lives at Lothlorien Farm and is a free-lance writer interested in intentional community and social change issues.