All for One and One for All: Balancing Personal Needs With the Needs of Community
In late 1981, a few months after I joined the Kerista community, I announced that my new-found art forms of song writing and documentary film making were so engaging and rewarding that I intended to cut back from a 30-hour work week to a 25-hour work week. After all, a utopian experiment certainly had room to support its budding artists.
After the uproar had subsided and the bemused refusal of my loving partners set in, I was left with lingering questions to ponder: Why was I the only Keristan who fully appreciated and supported my personal desires? Where was the loving, supportive ‘all for one’ implied by the ideal of community?
I did learn that most of my peers preferred artistic play to the housecleaning, gardening, and advertising sales work that occupied so many of our daylight hours. Yet they also valued paying the bills on time and steering clear of credit card debt. Indeed, during our original discussion of the matter there was puzzlement expressed that I was so far removed from the ‘one for all’ concept embedded in our community.
As a recent college grad, it had simply not occurred to me that the community at large would have such significant concerns about making ends meet that it would interfere with my desires. I had framed the issue with the assumption that whatever resources I required, whether temporal or material, would be provided by my community. My community partners, in looking at me, were assuming that I would take on my fair share of support for the temporal and material requirements of the community.
This youthful incident provides a tiny peephole into this enormous ongoing issue facing all communities and each individual in community. The needs of the individual and the needs of the community constantly press up against one another. Time and money emerge as finite resources. Individual and communal desires (leisure, travel, postgraduate work, restaurants, fashion, toys for the kids, new tools, rebuilding, more land, art projects) seem to be infinite. How is balance to be attained, and what is meant by ‘balance’?
Occasionally this balance feels like balancing a checkbook, a quantifiable situation that, with slight adjustments, locks into an objective steady state. When my Kerista partners and I wanted to distribute relatively undesirable tasks (cleanup of our messiest dwellings) we would often call a ‘cleaning bee’ and agree that all of us would work the same number of hours at the same time. Conversely, when it came to desirable tasks (childcare, for example) or resources (barter with vacation resorts) we set up scheduling systems that allowed individuals to take turns and experience some of the pleasure without monopolizing the entire resource for themselves.
There are other situations in which balance feels like walking a tightrope. By subtle movements of musculature, a delicate toehold is sustained on a swaying gossamer line poised over an abyss. My men’s community often faces this type of balance. We are a voluntary organization serving individuals who generally have very busy family and work lives within the teeming miasma of Silicon Valley. Members exhibit varying degrees of interest in a wide variety of activities: community service, emotional work, outdoor adventures, building and crafts, social events, spiritual retreats, and the like. If the balance sways too far toward any single type of activity (e.g., mostly emotional work with very little time left for fun and games or just hanging out), men simply stop showing up for monthly meetings and biannual retreats. Discontent sets in and passion deflates.
In this community, rotational leadership regulates the mixture of activities and group vision. Each change of leadership provides opportunity for a new orientation and fresh set of experiences. Elders help redirect grumbling and grousing toward a passion for leadership. Though some members lose interest and drop away, most step forward into leadership over time and offer their unique talents. Inevitably each new man in leadership alters the focus and mixture of activities to fit his vision. This leadership rotation revitalizes the community while providing powerful opportunities for individual development.
Sometimes balance takes the form of natural variation. Within my current four-adult home we often look toward complementary likes and dislikes to achieve balance. Some of us love to cook. Some enjoy the meditation of cleaning dishes. Two are outstanding organizers. One is an expansive visionary with a penchant for feng shui and another is a master gardener with a fondness for riotous color. The cooks prepare most meals, the meditative cleaners keep the kitchen in order, the planners figure out how to fit in vacations and social events and maintain the household finances, the interior decorating visionary is continually rearranging the furniture while the gardener rearranges plants.
Within our home, balance is at its most fluid in the area of conflict and emotional space. The four of us as individuals exhibit a broad spectrum of needs in this arena. These needs range from a desire to process all uncomfortable feelings in real-time to the inclination to sit out emotional storms and quietly contemplate them in privacy. Some have an easy time speaking difficult emotional truths and others struggle continually to let others in on personal upset. Factors such as workload, mood range, and physical health will affect how each of us relates to conflict and emotional work at any given time. Emotional balance is in place when we are all given the space we need for our inner work and the attention we need to resolve, or at least air, the feelings that emerge from within.
I have come to believe that the many forms of balance are most easily sustained (or regained) when a community understands the needs of its members. Though clairvoyance and group therapy can be helpful in this regard, the most direct way to discover need is to ask and then to listen. When a group invites individuals to articulate their needs, all members must be prepared to create a safe environment for individual truths to be spoken. We may learn that Mitch wants more time to play with his new-found art forms, Debbie needs to visit her relatives twice a year, John needs more spiritual space and time, and Samantha needs her own room. It is vital to validate these needs, yet this act of listening does not mean that each of us gets what we need right now. It is our starting point, allowing us to construct a more comprehensive likeness that enlarges the community and reveals who the members are in the privacy of their desires.
In order for the needs of the individual to be fulfilled, a second key dimension is required. Not only is it incumbent upon the community as a whole to make room for this articulation of need, the individual members of the community must actively assert their desires to the entire community. Hiding out or holding back can dilute and even poison the mutual trust and vulnerability that occurs within this dynamic process. If Susan does not tell us that she requires private time when she is emotionally upset I may focus group attention on her every foul mood and render it impossible for her to achieve equilibrium within the group.
Indeed, a profoundly authentic balance can occur when all the members grab hold of the community as their own and shape it in their own image. When my community becomes ‘Mitch Slomiak’s community’ I will repeatedly ask myself to describe what the Mitch Slomiak community looks like, feels like, acts like, plays like, worships like, works like, loves like. I will actively infuse my intention, vision, and spirit into the lifeblood of the community. As a matter of responsibility I will look around and try to determine the needs of my fellows and weave them into my tapestry of community.
There is subtlety to this mind-set. Rather than creating a personal fiefdom I will carefully weigh the needs of my partners as I prioritize my own needs. Why? Because I crave community and if I overlook or undervalue the needs of my community partners they may simply leave. If any community members regularly prioritize their own needs over those of the community, they may cause an imbalance that threatens the vitality of the entire community. This inner struggle for balance is an arena for my community heart to meet my independent spirit and find an inner voice that nurtures both. As I weave my heartfelt desires into community, I am weaving with each of my partners, as they, too, discover within themselves how to achieve their highest vision of community while making it work for themselves.
Whether gossamer thin or as solid as the base of the Great Pyramid, this balance I describe is a product of the attitudes and intentions of each member, flowing into action. While decisions continue to involve give-and-take, the presence of intention—the rock solid desire for all to achieve fulfillment in community—in the forefront of each member’s heart and mind enables a perpetual balance to exist. When all members experience dynamic balance the community becomes a place of great passion and deep contentment.
Mitch Slomiak has lived in community his entire adult life: two years of shared housing in college, 11 years in the Kerista community, and three years with two other ex-Keristans. He now lives very happily with his three partners and four community cats in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mitch is actively involved with Bay Area men’s communities, has recently begun playing guitar again, and loves communing with nature. Feel free to email him at [email protected]