Sunday, November 21, 2010

Getting Clear About What You Want

This continues my four-part series on how to be a savvy shopper when considering making a home in an intentional community.

I. What does FIC already offer? [see my Nov 15 blog]
II. How to make full use of Communities Directory as a seeker's resource [see my Nov 18 blog]
III. Questions that will help you figure out what you're looking for
IV. How to get the most out of a community visit

Today I'll address the third question, how to carefully explore whether intentional community living is right for you. This breaks into a two-part inquiry:

A. Is intentional community a good choice for you?
1. How much do you want to be in others' lives, and others in yours? While intentional communities come in a rich assortment of sizes and stripes, all of them are an explicit attempt to shift the boundary between public and private more toward the public. That is, community living intentionally means that you'll be involving others—beyond family and intimate partners—more deeply in your life. Is that something you want? If not, that's a warning sign. If so, to what extent (this is not just a yes-or-no question)?

On the one hand, community living offers the prospect of neighbors who share your core values (which are the basis of what the community has been organized around),
the opportunity to share resources instead of owning everything yourself, greater safety and emotional support. On the other hand, it means availability to work out how your core values should be applied to everyday living, talking through how you will share resources, the expectation of working through tensions with other members and being on hand when others need your support.

Community living offers a lot of support and camaraderie… and expects attention and energy from you in return. Does this equation work for you? If you're a parent (or expect to be), there's an excellent chance that you'll have access to child care help from other adults. That's the good news. This support comes with strings—the expectation that you'll take a turn caring for other people's kids on occasion. In addition, your kids will almost certainly be exposed to different child rearing practices, and adults who will set different boundaries than you do around acceptable behavior in public. Does this trade-off work for you? Are you prepared to have these conversations?

What to look for: Community may be a good choice if you have an overriding interest in being close to people who share a particular belief (perhaps a spiritual path, a burning desire to be a permaculture demonstration center, or a deep commitment to working with the homeless). If that common commitment is strong enough, it may sustain you through tensions over everyday frictions (such as how often and how carefully the dishes get washed or the front porch gets swept). Or it may not. You need to sit with the fact that sharing common values tells you almost nothing about whether you'll actually like the people. (Communities Directory is terrific with searching for a values match, and almost no help at all in predicting whether you'll find good chemistry with existing members.)

2. How much privacy do you need? However much you're excited by the prospect of living with like-minded souls, most of us also have basic needs for solitude, quiet, and reflection. Think about what you need in this regard in order to have a healthy, balanced life. Do you picture eating meals in a group once a week? Twice a week? Every day?

A related yet slightly different question is how much control you need over your immediate environment. How quiet do you need it to be? Just during sleeping hours, or all the time?

What to look for: If there is a significant kid population in the community, this is invariably going to translate into an elevated ambient decibel level, not to mention scooters left on the sidewalk, lights left on in empty rooms, and lemonade spills left to age on the kitchen floor.

If sound control matters, ask about noise attenuation in exterior walls. Caution: communities located in milder and warmer climates will tend to be noisier—with windows open more of the year, soundproofed walls won't make as much difference.

3. How much social engagement do you want? (This is the flip side of the previous question.) Note that it can be workable to get a significant portion of your social needs met outside of community, unless you picture a stay-at-home lifestyle (community does not have to be an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket deal). Warning: if your image of
"social engagement" extends no further than Twister, poker games, and Super Bowl parties, think again. In community, a fair portion of your time with other members will include work parties and plenaries. If you're allergic to meetings, raking leaves, or pulling morning glory out of the community garden, there may not be as much "social engagement" as you want.

4. How good are your social skills? This is a tricky one if you're not good at self-assessment, yet it's highly predictive of a good fit if your skills match up well with those of other members. What to look for:

o How clearly can you articulate what you're thinking? Speed is not as important here as accuracy and completeness. Is your ability dependent on the size of the group? (If you do fine talking in a group of four yet get flustered in a group of 30, think twice about selecting a large group.)

o How clearly can you articulate what you're feeling? Hint: if you don't understand why this is important, community living is not likely to be a good fit for you. The primary challenge of community is social, and you will be expected, on some level, to be able to work with fellow members emotionally.

o How accurately do hear what others say? Caution: don't rely solely on self-perception when answering this question: ask those who know you well for an honest assessment. If they don't give you high marks in this regard, that doesn't bode well for your chances of fitting in well in community, where this quality will be at a premium.

o How do you handle conflict? Conflict occurs whether you want it or not. The key here is not how often you get upset; it how you respond when others are upset with you. On the other hand, a person who navigate distress with aplomb can be a big plus in a community.

5. Do you have special needs? If you're wanting group support for meeting those needs, that's going to narrow your options. I didn't say extinguish your chances, yet you'll be wise to put out what you're wanting up front. In addition to shopping for folks who understand and able to deliver what you're seeking, you'll need to consider how your requests are likely to balance with what you bring to the party. If you come across as someone who's needs are significantly out of balance with what you offer, you're not likely to present as an attractive prospective.

6. How portable is your economic base? If you're retired and are living on savings, the world is your oyster. If you're otherwise drawn to an income-sharing community, the group itself will almost certainly provide a way to plug economically. However, if neither of these conditions obtain, then you'll want to look closely at how you'll make a living.

If you can telecommute, or have an established career as a consultant or trainer, then geography may not be much of a factor. (Hint: you can reap decided economic benefits from combining city wages with rural cost of living). If however, you need to commute to work to make ends meet, it is rare that you can find a great job located chock-a-block next to a great community. Usually, have to choose which great thing to prioritize. Is that a trade-off you're willing to make?

B. What kind of intentional community will fit you best?
Assuming you answered Question A in the affirmative, the next step is figuring out what kind of community is most promising. Here are some key queries:

o Size Matters
Big groups offer stability (they're less susceptible to failure following the loss of one or two key people), and a richer pool of people with whom you can match secondary interests (the chance for a community choir or bridge club). At the same time, the bigger group will tend to be less cohesive, more structured, and slower to change (more inertia). In a smaller group, there tends to be a higher commitment to working out differences. That said, the stakes are higher in small communities: if the group fails to work through interpersonal tensions, the dynamics of the whole group can go septic.

o City Mouse or Country Mouse?
How close do you want to be to the city? Urban groups offer the greatest range of cultural opportunities. That also means a plethora of distractions. Country life is typically simple and cleaner; it's also less stimulating and more isolated. Urban life is more expensive; rural life is less expansive. Hint: often you can maximize the good qualities of city and country by looking for a community in or near a small city with a university.

o What does your partner think of community?
Years ago I met a veteran of life at Israeli kibbutzim. He reported—with tongue only partly in cheek—that there were two main reasons that people left kibbutzim: a) because they fell in love (and were afraid that if they stayed that the nutrient-rich (and not necessary pro-monogamy) environment of community life would be too destabilizing for their nascent partnership to survive; or b)
because they didn't fall in love (and left to search for a partner in pastures they hoped would be greener).

If you're in an intimate partnership that you want to keep, read on.

It is not unusual (especially for a couple coming to community for the first time) that one partner is more enthusiastic about community living than the other—or for one partner to have decidedly different tastes in community than the other. Warning: if you're in a committed relationship that falls into either of the categories I just described, proceed with utmost caution. This is tricky ground to navigate successfully and often leads to an ultimatum from the less enthralled partner: choose the community or me. In the long run, it may be far less painful to have a heart to heart about this potential pitfall right at the get go.

Hint: With the notable exception of communities founded on alignment with traditional religious morality (of which there are a number), intentional communities tend to be very progressive on social issues, and you will tend to find markedly better acceptance and support for nontraditional partnerships, such as gay or mixed race relationships. For couples that have struggled to find this, community can be a highly valued safe haven.

• • •
If you're still in the hunt for community after working through the gauntlet I've posted above, you should have a distilled list of key markers that you'll measure prospective communities against. The next step is to contact the groups that seem most promising and ask the questions that will help you assess them for a good match. Hopefully, that will produce a winnowed short list for further scrutiny.

If at all possible, try to set up visits to sample as many of these finalists as possible. My fourth and final installment of this series will be how to get the most out such visits.

No comments: