Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Homes for Community Veterans

As someone who's lived in community for nearly four decades, I know a lot of folks who have lived in community—many of whom no longer do.

Of particular interest to me are those who lived in community a long time ago (I'm talking about those who have been gone for 10+ years) and are not likely to ever return. From what I've observed, most people who fit this profile fall into one of three categories.

Group I: Those That Got a Taste and Have Always Savored It
Without question, most folks recall their time in community fondly. Especially after time has burnished away the rough edges, and rose-shifted the memory toward the positive. They remember it as a time of unparalleled stimulation and connection. Community is a nutrient-rich environment, and it tends to foster growth spurts and unique experiences that participants remember well.

I can hardly tell you how many people I've spoken with who lived at least a portion of the childhood in community and think of it as the best time of their lives. Similarly, there are hosts of college alumni who glow when recalling their student co-ops days, and this pattern extends to people who lived in community in their 20s, 30s, and 40s as well.

For a long time, it baffled me that people could hold aloft such a positive memory and yet lack the motivation to recapture it—even for their kids. As good as it was, I've come to understand that mostly people are sharing a nostalgic moment rather than seriously contemplating a lifestyle reversal.

Why? In some cases it's family obligations (children to raise; precious schooling options to preserve by staying put; a spouse who's not interested; aging parents to care for). In others it's employment (needing to be near a valued job; worry that community life will be too consuming to allow for a vibrant career elsewhere; concern that community will be socially unacceptable to co-workers, or will otherwise dead-end a promising career). 

I also think it's inertia. People get used to the life they have and it's work—sometimes difficult and awkward work—to uproot what you're comfortable with to try something new. And make no mistake about it: community will rock your world. Having one's world rocked when you're young is part of what makes it memorable. Yet you may not want that much octane in your tank later on, when the consequences of upheaval are more awkward to digest.

People naturally invest in the choices they've made and it's typically harder to consider major lifestyle shifts once you're a decade or two down the road. It's one thing to do so in your carefree college years or your early 20s; it's all together something else to make such choices when your life path is fairly settled. I'm not saying it can't be done; I'm just saying it's hard.

I can relate to this because I chose community at the callow age of 24—well before I had a family or any significant roots established. While I can still recall my step-grandmother warning me that I was jeopardizing my future if I stepped off the up escalator (to career advancement) to scratch the exotic itch of community, following my heart never seemed that risky to me. Over the years, however, I've come to appreciate that: a) I took the chance when I was still close to the bottom rung on the ladder; and b) not everyone has the self-confidence I do that I'll land on my feet wherever I jump.

Group II: Those Who Were Traumatized and Haven't Gotten Over It
While (fortunately) this is a small portion of my focus group, it's a sobering one. Often, the people for whom this fits are either children who did not enjoy what their parents subjected them to, or they were adults who didn't get along that well with others in the community. In either case, there is a lingering story that power was misused, and they were on the short end of that stick.

In some cases there was a profound misunderstanding about what the group stood for or a mismatch of personalities. In more dark instances, power actually was misused and individual rights were trod upon. While all community dreams are positive, the same cannot be said of all community practices. In consequence, there are people who have been deeply scarred by experiments in group living that went awry. I've talked with a number of them and their stories can be chilling.

It is, of course, no mystery why the folks in this category don't return to community—they're still trying to recover from their prior experience.

Group III: Those for Whom It Was a Pivotal & Positive Experience But They Can't Go Back
This category is the most poignant. Often it's people with a strong sense of self, who have been quite successful in the mainstream. After years of wandering the relational desert of the wider culture they crave the sense of belonging and connection that is the hallmark of healthy community. At the same time however, they've become set in their ways and are often: a) unwilling to give up the control they have over their lives to be a rookie in an established group; or b) no longer have the energy to pioneer a fresh group. 

They are at a stage in their life where they seek community as support for their active life. They know what they want to do in the world and they're seeking community as a base of operation. As such, they prefer to join an established group (they have no interest in being on the committee to establish pet policies or parking lot norms). Yet they also have definite ideas about how they want things to run, and it's highly unlikely that there's a community that exactly meets their specs.

There are few groups who embrace new members who are full of ideas about how things can be improved. Rather, most groups want new members who are first willing to learn why things are they way they are, and who try to be accepting. Unfortunately, Group III folks tend to have Type A personalities. As movers and shakers, they can be disruptive and established groups tend to react badly when new members try to move things around too much or to shake them up right away.

Over the years I've been approached by a number of community veterans looking to go home again (to community). While these folks have valuable community experience, you cannot reasonably walk into a new group and demand credit for past service in another location; respect has to be earned anew. If returning veterans do not have the patience or humility to be viewed as a newbie, finding them a suitable home in community can be like the proverbial challenge of fitting a camel through the eye of a needle—they'd have a better chance of making a lot of money and trying to buy their way into heaven community.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved in north campus student co-ops at the University of Michigan for 3 years and look back at that time as the best years of my life and still keep in contact with folks I met there - going to have a visit with a few next week in San Feancisco area, I often wonder about spending the last years of life in commiunity but like you say - career, family etc may never allow that to happen- but may do a few trips to communities in future for classes offered.