Friday, April 8, 2016

Beyond Cancer

I went into the hospital with chronic, debilitating back ache Jan 31 and promptly discovered that I have cancer: multiple myeloma. Not surprisingly, that has been the centerpiece of my reality ever since.

Now though, more than two months into chemotherapy, I'm starting to stabilize and am going through a relatively quiet phase of therapy, where I try to build strength in anticipation of a stem-cell transplant that I'm expecting to undergo this summer at the Mayo Clinic.

Though I was knocked flat on my keister by the initial barrage of medications, I've steadily been regaining functionality, stamina, and lucidity ever since, the upshot of which is that I'm able to tread water with email, and engage in life beyond cancer. For the first time in two months I want to write about something other than knocking on the door of my mortality.

As I sit with the increasing possibility that I'll be able to get my process oar back in the water, the obvious next question is what do I want to do with that? Where do I want to go? That question morphs easily into, "Where do I think I can have the most positive impact?" or "What can I bring to the table that isn't easily found elsewhere?" The truth is, I'm not sure. But I have ideas.

My best arena is cooperative groups—where the members have made a purposeful commitment to operate cooperatively (as opposed to competitively). That cuts down the field quit a bit. Even though interest in cooperative alternatives is rising, there are not that many groups that have taken the plunge, and fewer still that have actually thought through what it means to learn to respond to differences with curiosity rather than combativeness.

Over the past three decades I have concentrated my group work with intentional communities, both because it's more accurate to assume a core commitment to cooperation in that setting, and because living together requires that members deal with at least a baseline level of issues (cleanliness, child rearing, pets, ecological impact, and diet to name a few). To be sure, some intentional communities have proven to be sufficiently clever that they've been largely able to duck functioning cooperatively even when their noses have been rubbed in it, but there are also many who have taken the bit in their mouth and are purposefully trying to pull in rhythm.

Those last are my best clients. They know they're doing something radical, they know it isn't easy, and they're willing to ask for help.

Having said that, the world of intentional communities is relatively small and obscure. Yes, it's growing and its relevance to the wider culture is becoming more easily recognized all the time, yet many people simply dismiss lessons gleaned from community living as a sideshow oddity—it's too far beyond the pale to be applicable to mainstream issues (such as how to solve problems without resorting to threats of war).

I have tossed in this last parenthetical example as an incendiary. How could anyone not be interested in exploring and developing more effective, less belligerent ways to solve problems? And yet the golden nuggets painstakingly mined from cooperative living that bear on this challenge are blithely ignored almost everywhere I turn. It's discouraging.

Thus, one reason to pause before returning to work in the trenches of intentional community, is to weigh whether my efforts there will be seen and available to inspire others.

Going the other way, intentional communities are concentrated cooperative groups, rich in complexity and complications—just the kind of environment where learning can be sustained at an accelerated rate. It is also where I have my best connections and am most likely to find meaningful work quickly. While I know that the application of my work is far broader than the micro-world of intentional communities, I may have to leave it to others to make that case, narrowing my focus to identifying the lessons, rather than disseminating them.

It's an interesting fork in the road. In the end, it comes down, for me, to which path appears more attractive: would I rather do the field work (panning for the ore) or the promotion (packaging the refined products)? Put that way, I'll choose the field: working to identify and access cooperative options in a dynamic; learning better how to see competitive traps before we fall into them; increasing my capacity to work with the whole person—all of us, after all, are rational, emotional, intuitive, and kinesthetic beings all rolled into one.

Presented with all these delicious options, you can see why I'm in no hurry to depart this veil of tears.


livelihood pliant said...

Hi Laird:

I've been reading your blog for about 8 months or so now and live in St. Paul MN. A friend sent me your way when I was looking for intentional community here. I'm also part of the Community Rights movement; we are scattered across the US and are another subset of the dominant culture that might be a good fit for what you love to do: solve problems in groups of people. Because we don't learn how to be truly democratic citizens, when Community Rights folks begin a campaign in a municipality to take back their sovereignty and strip corporations of their personhood rights, they have to grapple with how to get along with each other and practice consensus thinking and action. Not a small task, as you well know. Groups typically fall apart when there is a dominant personality that thwarts other ideas and they don't know how to handle that person other than with Minnesota Nice, which of course fails miserably. There isn't any money to be made in this endeavor, but there are local groups in the Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa areas who would benefit from your expertice and provide you with local places to be useful. If this doesn't interest you, I totally understand. If it does, I'd love to continue the conversation. Either way, all the best in your recovery and convalescence.

Robin Alexander said...

It does appear to be amazingly difficult for people in our culture to feel and behave cooperatively, let alone being "in community." I think that for many, they just lack experience of what it feels like and how good it can be. Thus they shy away from trying and fall back to "Minnesota Nice," which, by the way, is alive and well in Wisconsin and other places. Sometimes the pressure builds and nice erupts into belligerence that rages for a bit and then goes back to nice. Meanwhile community is avoided at all costs or a semblance of community is created and folks pat themselves on the back for having such a great community. Scott Peck describes well the lengths people will go to avoid community in his The Different Drum.