In Search of Community

Carol A. Hand

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

************

Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would even have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

hub management

Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

 

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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34 Responses to In Search of Community

  1. desilef says:

    Chilling accounts of both communities but especially the first one you joined. I wonder if it has to do with so many people joining because they are cultureless. The society they were born into didn’t work for them. They arrive with desire but no framework? You had been hurt but you knew the Ojibwe way which continued to give you an outside perspective so you could see something was wrong? A community that doesn’t have a shared traditional and deeply ingrained set of values and understanding of the world will accept what the leader tells them to share. I wonder, in our individualist and often screwed up society, do you think co-housing might work better in overcoming aloneness than intentional communities?

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    • carolahand says:

      Astute insights and important questions, Diane! I think you have pinpointed the key challenges of trying to create a new way of organizing when we are still clinging to old ways of thinking about power, community, and the need for self-preservation.

      I honestly don’t know what the answer is to your question about co-housing. It is something I am seriously considering for the future. I have tried to gently nudge my neighborhood to become more cohesive and “greener” by creating gardens and sharing what grows with neighbors, and helping out neighbors when I can. But it hasn’t been enough to reach more than one or two people in superficial temporary ways. (It hasn’t nudged my immediate neighbor to stop using chemicals to create a greener lawn.) I do have a friend who owns an old 1950s resort on the lake shore with small cabins in need of repair and upgrades. Some of the cabins are now homes for women who prefer to live in small separate dwellings to maintain their independence and privacy while sharing expenses and bartering skills and services with each other. It is an appealing option pragmatically and philosophically, but I’m still reflecting on alternative options.

      Liked by 1 person

      • desilef says:

        I hope you find a way — or are able to move to a warmer climate. Though community is lacking–maybe even more lacking–in the sun. In my hometown NYC and now here in LA, as mixed or predominantly working class neighborhoods are gentrified, all sense of mutuality disappears almost immediately. But things have gone to such an extreme, maybe we’ll live long enough to see a reaction.

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        • carolahand says:

          We do seem to be in an era when people are motivated to isolate themselves in order to survive, rather than taking what appears to me to be the wiser course by joining together.

          (I think I’m too much of a genetic northerner to move south. I can tolerate cold, and even survive a polar vortex, but not humid heat.)

          (On another topic, I loved Fiery Alphabet! I’m not sure if you saw the comment I posted on your blog.)

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        • desilef says:

          Yes, Carol, I saw your comment and think I responded with gratitude. Again, thank you.

          Like

  2. A very serious lesson is poignantly illustrated here. Let us not forget Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Some are drawn to charismatic leaders because it relieves them of the difficult responsibilities associated with survival (i.e. fear). When we feel overburdened and alone, we are susceptible to exchanging our individualism for the offerings of safety. History provides a multitude of examples which are not so infrequently tragic.

    We must realize that the desire for a healthy community is not a forlorn hope, but it is a problematic undertaking in this modern day and age. Instead of trying to escape what we perceive as dysfunctional society, we should continually strive to improve it. A corporeal nirvana simply does not exist, but that doesn’t mean we are condemned to a hellish existence either.

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    • carolahand says:

      Important caveats, Robert. Ultimately what I discovered was merely a microcosm of what ails the larger collective. As you observed, people are drawn to leaders who absolve them of the need to make their own decisions and make their own mistakes — whether the leaders promote religion, patriotism, or nationalism, they all serve the same function from my perspective. Knowing that still doesn’t help me solve the dilemma of finding or creating alternatives based on comradeship, compassion, mutual respect and a sense of responsibility for more than themselves and their small insular group. Perhaps it is the search that matters and not the discovery?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Your writings and insights are deep for those of us used to wading in the shallows. I recall in my early to mid-twenties living with neo-hippies and later part of a fundamentalist, religious community for brief periods. One thing I learned was that no matter what the type, accidental or intentional, human nature always rises to the surface. I do believe community and communal living is possible and even preferable but it has to be grounded in relationships built on mutual trust and respect. That’s no easy feat. I’m definitely glad that you’re a part of my virtual community. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Not much too add, as people have mentioned many of my thoughts. Just want to say it was an enjoyable read, as always – and shows the wisdom of following your intuition protected you and your child from some possibly worse experiences. Yes, it would be cool if our virtual community could live together. 🙂

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  5. carolahand says:

    Your comment reminded me of an image that comes to mind when I think of all the special people I have met through blogging. (Even George Bush’s appropriation of the image doesn’t diminish it’s power for me.)

    I see the globe with millions of individual lights connected by the internet and I reflect on an exercise at the closing of a conference I attended a long time ago for indigenous people on worldwide healing. There were more than 500 people from many cultures and parts of the world who stood in a circle in the huge auditorium. One person walked to the center and held a flashlight and the lights were turned off. She turned on her flashlight and walked to each of the four directions — to the east, south, west and north, leaving a lit flashlight at each point and then returning to the center. “Remember the light is always shining in the center. Life may dim or extinguish the lights around the periphery of the circle, but they can always be relit by returning to the center. Remember as we head to the four directions that we can always return to the center when times seem too much for us to bear alone.” Perhaps it is best for us of us in this expanding virtual community to be where we are, encircling the globe, helping each other keep the torches lit:).

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Robbie says:

    As I read your post one word kept floating around in my head ” surreal”…I believe in community, but where “Serendipity” is the core of it’s being….I like community that occurs out of people radamonly being near each other like neighborhoods. I am not a fan of HOA( home owner associations) either. Maybe that is the key we don’t “need” each other to survive, but we are surprised by our random encounters,we begin to learn from one another….it all happens over time…. not in a pressure cooker which in my opinion creates a “cult ” I admire both your adventurous life + common sense to know when to move on….you say you lacked self-confidence, but I ponder that you had self-confidence to do the things you did in your vast life:-)

    There is a lot of talks today about people joining “retirement” communities where they all have the same interests.That worries me since “diversity” is the foundation of a healthy eco-system…maybe we need to all learn to work together and not need a leader:-) Maybe just “project” leaders and that changes based on our talents….no one in control all the time. Power seems to ruin people…even good people over time….

    I feel blogging is a “window” into the soul of another human, however, a good bottle of wine + food can do the same, but today we are just too busy to even invite a neighbor over which we should…:-)

    Liked by 2 people

    • carolahand says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Robbie. Yes, some of the happenings and beliefs could definitely be called “surreal” — for the sake of brevity, I omitted some that were even more bizarre. It is true that there was a tendency for members to develop their own weird culture and “group think,” but I could say the same about any institution or organization I have been part of, including universities, state government, and tribal communities. But strange and different beliefs do make life interesting as long as people are respectful of each other and don’t try to impose their beliefs. (So no retirement communities for me!)

      I do believe we do need others. If I’m honest, I know there are many things I cannot do and must look to others for help. I doubt I could even learn to do some things. I’m not a mechanic or electrician or plumber and I don’t have the physical strength or skill to do some of the things that need to be done to keep my car running and my house livable. Those tasks were covered in communal living, but of course there were tradeoffs. It would be nice to have neighbors who could barter those skills in exchange for help with gardening or produce that I grow.

      I like your idea about “project leaders.” It could be possible to do given the right context, yet in my experience, innovation often requires someone who is willing to take the lead in transforming taken-for-granted ways of organizing people to get purposeful work done. Systems often resist change, as do people in positions of power within those systems. Many people at all levels within and outside of organizations ultimately choose to accept the discomfort they have learned to deal with rather than a future that has no guarantees. At least that has been my experience when I worked as a program developer and supervisor.

      And because work takes so much of our time, there seems to be too little time to do what you suggest — to socialize with neighbors! I do find that many of my neighbors stop to talk when I am working on the gardens in my front yard, even children on their way to and from school, so stepping away from my computer is a good thing! (Which, by the way, is why it took me so long to reply. I was helping my daughter paint an old house she just bought.)

      Robbie, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts! I look forward to many more conversations.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. weavergrace says:

    You make me feel better about my failing to join or organize an intentional community, I hadn’t put it into words, but when I read what you wrote, I recognize leaders I’ve met who shepherd flocks of followers, and leaders who empower people. I still wonder about establishing a Transition Town.

    I, too, have seen “hub management” destroy families and workplaces. When a couple people have to diss someone else to feel like they are connected, then that connection is toxic to all. When you write about “based on comradeship, compassion, mutual respect and a sense of responsibility for more than themselves and their small insular group,” I get pangs from recognizing precious people who I lost to insular groups, and renewed dedication to keeping myself in the community that I want.

    My intention is to build on a community around me of people who are strong leaders sometimes, and are who are inspired sometimes, so no one gets stuck in the role of Leader or Follower. This seems easier to do online than in physical reality.

    “find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation”
    – yeah. It immunizes people from the disease of being a chronic follower. I think that helping people identify (aka remember) and develop their own gifts is one of the noblest professions.

    Thank you for inspiring these thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • carolahand says:

      Thank you for sharing these crucial insights based on your reflections about life experiences and observations, Grace! You have added important (poetically-stated) distinctions about leadership, community, and liberatory praxis (e.g. “shepherd flocks of followers” vs. “leaders who empower”). I am truly grateful for the opportunity you have provided to engage in deeper conversations about issues that affect how we live our lives. I look forward to your future posts and to future conversations.

      Like

  8. Interesting that someone had be “a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community.” That is no community, merely a dictatorial organization, of which the world has far too many of already. Glad you got out, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. Jnana Hodson says:

    If you watch geese in flight, you’ll notice there’s a constant rotation among the ones in the lead. It’s hard work, and they share it. It’s also my ideal for leadership. One steps up for a bit and then steps aside, ready to come back in relief.

    Liked by 3 people

    • carolahand says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jnana. I do love this wisdom from the geese. I remember hearing Maggie Kuhn speak about the lesson of the geese many years ago. She added that as a new leader emerges to take on the difficult task of cutting through the wind resistance to make it easier for those that follow, the rest of the flocks honks encouragement to help the leader keep strong. It seems hard for many humans to work as effectively as a team.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Lara/Trace says:

    The community of bloggers, your readers, have totally absorbed my attention. YOU have created a community here!

    Like

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