Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tender Chicken

I got involved with intentional community in 1974, when I joined with three others to start Sandhill Farm. Because I've found a lifestyle that has worked for me—providing just the right balance of stimulation, support, and authenticity—I've stayed.

Moving beyond personal support, I see my life in community also as a platform for social change work. It's about incorporating one's values into everyday life, and about control of one's time—having sufficient flexibility and support to be able to concentrate my attention on what's happening (to me and around me), so that I can learn, and then share what I'm learning.

One of the most important lessons for me has been the need to integrate one's thinking with one's feelings—about paying attention to both the head and the belly, honoring
for the insights and compensating for the blindness of each. At its best, community is a nutrient rich environment, perfect for fostering the development of this special kind of indigo hybrid, replete with its promise of understanding and compassion—two fruits for which there is rarely a surplus.

As a process consultant, I teach that a good facilitator must be able to work both with Content and with Energy. While this entails completely different skill sets, both are important and need attention. Taking this further, I believe that World Peace will depend on our species learning better how to integrate these two primal energies: thought and emotion. They represent different ways of receiving information, different ways of knowing information, and different ways of sharing information. I am convinced that working successfully with conflict means learning how to work in both realms—often simultaneously and with maximal discernment and minimal judgment. While I won't pretend this is easy, it can be done.

• • •
In reflecting both on how important this challenge of integration is, and how hard it is to accomplish, I want to relate the story of a recent check-in (or chicken, as we call them at Sandhill, per my previous blog) that I had with two other long-term communitarians—both of whom have more than a dozen years of community living under their belt and believe strongly in the ideal of community as a positive force in the world.

I tell this story with sadness, and no small amount of humility, as it highlights just how far we have yet to go. I'll call these communards Dale and Terry.

Dale's Story
When Dale and I first got together, I asked how things were going at home. I'd heard that they had recently lost a member to a drug overddose that was considered a suicide. Dale reported that it wasn't as bad as it might have been because the woman who had ended her life had been rather reclusive and a lot of people didn't know her well.

I told Dale that I had heard that:
o The suicide had occurred shortly after a difficult community meeting during which the woman's behavior had been labeled addictive and the community was discussing what, if anything, to do about it.
o There was neither agreement about the diagnosis nor about the best course of action.
o The woman was aware of the meeting and was upset by it.

When Dale agreed that that was how it went down, I wondered if there weren't serious feelings that arose from that sequence. Dale admitted that some members did have strong reactions. When I aked if the community was talking about it, Dale snapped back: "Not everyone thinks that we have to have a meeting about everything. We do things differently at my community."

Well, it didn't take a Ouija Board to figure out that I was being disinvited to ask more, and I let it go. Inside however, I was wondering how you could possibly not talk about it as a group. It's been my experience that pain like this does not go away on its own—especially when interlarded with guilt and anger. Rather, it festers and degrades trust and good will. When not dealt with openly, this kind of thing can become anaerobic and malignant. Toughing it out, in my experience, essentially translates into not facing the tough stuff out in the open. I'm worried about communities that don't have a way to grieve together.

Leaving the story of the suicide, Dale went on to share news of another member who had recently faced a near-death medical emergency, only this person survived. This second trauma had shaken Dale up more than the suicide because of a closer personal connection. When Dale finished, I turned to Terry, who had joined us while Dale's check-in was in progress.

Terry's Story
Earlier that day, I had overheard Terry describing to a friend the challenges of parenting two young children. In particular, Terry was alert to the need for children to be able to develop their capacity to identify and voice their feelings, especially when the kids are young and they don't yet have sufficient vocabulary and are just learning the art of self-reflection. As a parent emeritus, I found Terry's overview sensitive and insightful. I was impressed.

Imagine my surpirse when Terry stated—after listening politely while Dale described a gut-wrenching emotional roller coaster: "I'd rather just get down to business so we can get this over with. I have a lot to do." As a cooperator, I found Terry's choice insensitive and callous. Again I was impressed, though this time unfavorably.

How, I wondered, could someone see so well what children needed, yet fail to see that they needed it as well?

While I'll freely admit that neither of these two communitarians had ever been accused of being poster children for heart circles, this pair of tender, yet awkward chickens touched me as a profound example of how far we must still travel to find the integration I beieve to be so essential to waging peace. There's still a lot of pain out there.

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