Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Individual and the Group, a Play in Three Acts

One of the interesting ways to think about intentional communities is that it's a purposeful choice to move toward "we" on the I-we spectrum. What I mean is that you can look at how people behave and sort actions into those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the individual, and contrast it with those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the public, or the group.

Where we stand on that spectrum is significant for a handful of reasons.

I. Are We an Island or Not?
First, you can make a good case for there never having been a time in human history where the dominant culture was located more toward the "I" end of that spectrum than we are in mainstream US culture today. It's all about what's best for the individual. Think John Wayne. Think Ayn Rand. The essential concept is that society will do best if individuals focus on their own welfare above all else. If individuals thrive, then the society will necessarily follow.

It hasn't always been that way. Almost four centuries ago, Englishman John Donne penned this well-known poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 
                        
 —John Donne (1624)

While those lines are timeless, it's application has since eroded. Consider this contemporary counterpoint:

A winter's day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island


I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island


Don't talk of love
But I've heard the words before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island


I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island


And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries


—Paul Simon (1966)

While there's a question how much Simon was trying to capture the ethos of the times versus how much he was writing cynically (or perhaps he was doing both), it's clear that we've ridden the horse of capitalism right up to the very gates of hell, and we're by no means done with the ride. Republicans have their hands on the reins and we have a President who's gleefully writing executive orders eviscerating a spate of regulations aimed at protecting the public good. Herbert Hoover's philosophy of rugged individualism lives on.

It's my belief that humans, as a species, are hard-wired to be herd animals. We crave each other's company and don't do well in isolation. Thus, it doesn't surprise me that there's a deep hunger for community; for a sense of belonging beyond one's immediate blood family. It's a natural response to the alienation that surfaces in the ill-fitting American dream of a house in the burbs where neighbors barely know one another.

That said, knowing that it's good for us does not mean that we know how to do it—live in close approximation with others without the structure of a caste system or Father-Knows-Best paternalism to maintain social order. We want the freedom of individual choice, and at the same time a solid connection with the herd. It's no minor feat figuring out how to thread that needle.

With rare exceptions, we have not been raised with cooperative skills. Worse, most folks who attempt cooperative living do not go into the experiment understanding why that's important. Commonly, they just get frustrated that it isn't easier. (Why is there this gap between what I intend and what I achieve?)

II. What's Private and What's Public?
The fact the people living in intentional communities have moved more toward the "we" end of the spectrum, does not mean they've moved all the way over. There is still a plethora of decisions that individuals or households make that are not considered group business.

That said, there is nuance around how far the line has been shifted, and it's not likely that everyone will see it the same way. If the group doesn't explore this ahead of time (to be fair, it's hard to gin up enthusiasm for discussing hypothetical awkwardness—why borrow trouble?) those differences are not apt to be illuminated until you're in a situation where they apply. The interesting case is when an individual makes a choice that no one proposes should be handled at the group level, yet that decision has obvious impact on the group. Now what? 

For the most part this is uncharted water. As a backdrop for my thinking about how to proceed, I want to pause to introduce two important concepts:

A. Intentional Communities as Modern Villages
Over 15 years ago I happened upon a copy of Sobonfu Somé's The Spirit of Intimacy, Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (2000), in which she describes how intimate couples relate to the group in traditional West African villages, which is where she was raised. While the village does not direct villagers in choices of intimacy, there is nonetheless an acknowledged two-way relationship between the couple and the village, where each has a responsibility to aid and sustain the other. This is formally acknowledged in marriage vows, and extends to raising children.

By substituting intentional community for village, it gave me insight into a constructive, proactive role for groups in situations where the whole is significantly impacted to the private actions of individual members. Apparently, in West African villages there is broad recognition that "we're all in this together." In consequence, there's an understanding that if the group is impacted by the choices of individuals then there needs to be an opportunity for the village (as represented by the elders in village culture) to have a say in how things move forward.

This is an important difference from the hands-off approach that is generally taken in mainstream culture. Unless you break a law, individuals are not expected to make themselves available to discuss the wider consequences of private decisions. They can simply say, "It's none of your business" and that's expected to be honored.

B. In Cooperative Culture Groups Get Together to Solve Problems and to Enhance Relationships
In the mainstream, meetings are essentially viewed as a way to share information and ideas, on the road to resolving issues and concerns. However, in cooperative culture (in contrast with competitive culture) how you accomplish things matters as much as what you accomplish. In cooperative culture there are two primary meeting objectives: 1) clearing up confusion, and figuring out how best to respond to emerging issues; and 2) sustaining and improving relationships among members.

These two objectives are not necessarily evenly weighted (though they may be); sometimes one of them is more to the fore, and others times it's the reverse. The significance of this is that it can be a revelation to some that you'd call a meeting expressly to attend to relationships. That is, the meeting may have no decision-making component at all, yet still be potent and appropriate.

With these two concepts in hand, let's return to the question of how to respond to a private decision that has blow back in the group. What's called for, I believe, is a group session designed to clear the air. Once it's established that there are nontrivial reverberations in the group, you have to accept that there is no stopping people from discussing it in pairs and small clusters (think parking lot conversations); the question is whether you also want to have a plenary discussion. As far as I'm concerned you have to. Here's why:

o  Getting on top of gossip and rumors
If you don't create an chance to look at this with everyone in the same room, information will be unevenly shared; some of it is bound to be incomplete, some of it is likely to be distorted, and some may be just plain wrong. It can be a nightmare trying to get all the worms back in the can. You pretty much need a plenary to get everyone on the same page.

o  You cannot repair damage until you know what it is
The biggest danger in these situations is that relationships are strained. To be more precise, when focusing on reactivity, no one's worried about unbridled joy—we're talking about feelings of alienation, such as fear, confusion, disgust, anger, or even outrage.

To address this well requires a certain sequence—one that's most effectively done live (you can't mail it in). Feelings must be fully expressed, they must be acknowledged (to the satisfaction of the speaker), and there must be a heartfelt, connecting response. Note that this does not necessarily require the individual to agree that they've done something wrong, or to offer an apology, though those may be appropriate.

o  Safety in numbers
When voicing negative reactions, many of us find it challenging to do so cleanly and completely (who do you know, after all, who learned this growing up?). While it may not make it easier to hear, sharing in the whole group can often make it easier for people to be courageous about speaking up.

Also, it is typically easier to line up skilled facilitation (either from within the group, or perhaps by bringing in someone from outside) for a plenary, the better to establish and maintain a constructive container for such delicate work. A good facilitator will make it easier for all parties to both speak and be heard.

To get these results, it's imperative that the meeting be set up properly. It is not about judging others, assigning blame, determining objective truth (uncovering what really happened), or making decisions; it's about sharing information, understanding impact, and repairing relationships.

III. Terraforming the Culture of Inclusivity
The stakes here are rather high. Not because that many people will ever live in intentional community, but because communities are research and development centers for sustainable culture. 

In this era of disintegrating civility and the normalization of alienation politics, many of us are near desperation in yearning for a way forward that all can embrace. I can see no hope in relying on additional doses of what got us to this pass, with one side trying to pound their majority down the throats of those who lost the last election. We need a sea change—an approach that builds on what's being learned in the crucible of intentional community living about how to solve problems and attend to relationships at the same time.

This is not about homogenization, making nice, or pretending that everyone thinks the same way. Rather, it's about moving ahead only after all sides have been heard and everyone's on the bus. It's understanding at a visceral level that we've got to start thinking more about "we" and not so much about "I," and what it takes to get there.

2 comments:

Ma'ikwe Ludwig said...

Ha! I was amused to see this as the theme of your blog, which I assume you were writing yesterday. Yesterday morning, I was in the pulpit at church... the title was "Why community?" and the content had remarkable overlap with this blog. Your influence definitely shows in my work, even as I've taken it in some different directions.

Thanks, teach :)

Ma'ikwe

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