Thursday, January 1, 2015

Culture Change Versus Lifestyle Change

In the last month I received this inquiry from a follower of this blog:

What is the minimal critical mass of emotional/interpersonal intelligence necessary for a group to actually manifest the spirit and process [needed for community to succeed]? My ten-year experience in cohousing resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and a real cynicism (not yet misanthropy) regarding our species current capacity to pull this off. 

That's a good question. In essence, what is our maturity and our capacity to grow in the ways needed for community to succeed?

I think the key lever in this equation is not so much maturity (degree of sophistication in communication skills, and depth of familiarity and facility with group dynamics and different systems of governance) as openness to self-examination and change (ability to be curious when faced with divergent viewpoints, commitment to looking for blind spots when challenged, and willingness to try something different when people or circumstances shift). If you are accomplished at the latter, you can derive the former.

So let's focus on change, which can be both exhilarating and unsettling.

It is common for those of us active in the field of intentional community to be discussing change. As in change from the mainstream; change in the way we communicate, change in what we eat, change in how we raise children; change in how we build homes; change in how we respond to distress; change in how we run meetings; change in how we make decisions; change in how we define leadership; change in how we relate to material wealth; change in how we view mental health; change, even, in how we relate to change.

We speak both about lifestyle change and about culture change—sometimes interchangeably—but they aren't the same thing. In this essay I want to focus on the difference between them, and why the heavy lifting is done under the banner of culture change.

People make lifestyle changes all the time. Some are relatively minor (such as giving up wearing blue jeans, neckties, or pantyhose; or when my father switched from smoking cigarettes to cigars in 1964 when the Surgeon General announced that cigarettes were detrimental to one's health). Some are a bit more serious (switching from a sports car to a Volvo, opting for safety and mileage over acceleration and flash). Some are downright major league (moving from the city to the country; or changing one's diet from fast food to vegan).

Culture change, however, occurs on a deeper level. It requires thinking about what you would ordinarily do without thinking at all—challenging baseline assumptions. We have all been steeped in cultural conditioning that creates a context for how we experience the world and how we tend to respond to it. It is the water we swim in. Culture change requires stepping back from that conditioning and consciously choosing to shift something: like leaving the water and starting to breathe air. It's not just breaking habits; it's breaking molds.

Thus, culture change is much more difficult to achieve than lifestyle change, which is important when considering what it takes to be successful at creating vibrant intentional communities. Here's why:

1. Many intentional communities are attempts to purposefully create a quality of connection among members that is ordinarily not available in mainstream neighborhoods. (I'm not saying it couldn't be; I'm saying it isn't.)

2. Intentional communities are founded on the idea that we can all have a good quality life at a lower cost per person if we share assets.

3. In order to achieve 1 & 2 above, you need to live more closely with fellow members (both physically and psychically) and that requires either: a) surrendering to a leader (or leaders) who will tell you how to behave; or b) creating a more cooperative atmosphere in which to manage jointly owned assets and to successfully navigate the tensions that will naturally result from people with different styles and personalities needing to work things out together.

4. When you digest that the vast majority of us have been raised in competitive culture that is both hierarchic and adversarial, you understand that it takes a sea change to shift to cooperative culture. For one thing you have to start valuing relationships more than truth (or who's right). This is a big change.

One of the things that makes living in intentional community hard is that some people come to it ready to effect culture change, while others are only open to lifestyle adjustments. As a result, there's considerable variance in the degree of elasticity among the membership. Some are prepared for far more stretching than others, and there's more than a little poignancy to the tensions that can result from culture changers who are pleading to get everyone on board with a commitment to that degree of shift, being resisted (and resented) by lifestyle changers who feel they're being bullied into conversations and considerations they never signed up for.

Caution: In laying this out, I do not want to be understood to be favoring culture changers over lifestyle changers. Both have their place. While culture changers may be better equipped to make seminal shifts in what it means to be a human being in this world, both culture changers and lifestyle changers can create successful communities—by which I mean communities where everyone is happy with what they've created and they've developed functional ways to make collective decisions.

That said, I am trying to make the case that people trying to establish successful intentional communities are going to be far more likely to succeed if their membership is strongly slanted one way or the other: all culture changers or all lifestyle changers—because strong advocates for one side don't tend to play well with their counterparts championing the other.

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