In community you will encounter experiences that are offensive, that which you would choose to avoid. You’ll find people that irritate you, and if they were to leave the community, someone else would take their place. That’s just the nature of life in community. It reflects human nature, and the way life is. Some people expect more, and become disillusioned. But if they recognize that the situation they’re coming into is not unlike coming into a family, they can avoid much disappointment.
“Strength through diversity” has become a popular concept. I see this every day at first hand. What does it mean, exactly? If you bring people together, you’ve got diversity. When moving into a community, each of us brings our baggage as well as our strengths, our gifts. Our gifts don’t show up equally. Some people put in a lot of physical labor — and they may find it unfair that others aren’t willing, able, or motivated to do the same. But those others may bring different energies. Whether we value those differences or not, the diversity of our gifts contributes to the wholeness of the community.
One of the major lessons that we at Songaia had to learn — and are still learning — relates to how we get along with each other, how we respect each other. Many of us believe that we should be able to resolve our differences, and that if we’re not able to do so, we’ve got a serious problem. Part of my expectation is that there will be times that we don’t resolve differences. People will be unhappy, maybe felt unheard. I don’t see that as a crisis. Some do, and that’s a difference between my view and theirs — I’m not saying who’s right, but we will tend to use different approaches. I can tolerate a certain level of dissent without going into panic mode. Some would say I’m too laid back. For example, when I find myself getting into a situation that looks like it could become very explosive, I’ll back off and give it time — that’s my personal leadership style. I don’t believe that we always have to “deal with this thing now.” I think sometimes it’s best to let things cool down, give people time to think — or adapt to an irritation. For me, if living in community is all about personal growth, it’s important to allow for the reality that growth takes time.
During meetings, we sometimes take a quick visual poll of community members using a living sociogram. We ask people to physically move around in the room and line up in response to a question: e.g., in dealing with a particular issue do they want more or less process; do they want to deal with communication issues or not, and so forth. The result is almost always a broad range of differences. You will see a similarly diverse response if you ask people to line up according the standard cleanliness they require in the Common House. After seeing this process a few times, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that we all have different values and perspectives. The question is not whether someone’s a good or a bad communitarian — the challenge of community is being able to flex, being able to embrace our diversity.
One of our members, who to my mind exemplifies the values of good communitarian, is not a house cleaner. You can’t count on him to do clean-up in the common house; it’s not a priority. He gives other tasks much more value. So if we were grading people on the basis of their cleaning performance, he’d get a pretty low mark. But he contributes to the community in many other important ways. This is not unlike the way things often are within families. To me the community’s just a larger manifestation of what it means to be family.
Excerpted from forthcoming book Songaia – An Unfolding Dream