catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 16 :: 2008.09.12 — 2008.09.26


"Community is bullshit"

Professor John cleared his throat and looked around the room at our eager young faces. “Community is bullshit” he said, and turned away without any further explanation. I could not tell if it he was smiling or sneering when he said it. Needless to say, you could’ve driven your Smart Car through the open hole between my lips, my chin dropping to the ground like so many cartoon characters. Had I heard him right? Had this professor (this Christian professor, mind you!) said what I think he said? After eight hours on the plane (including layovers) and two hours driving progressively up-up-up a steep mountain to reach my destination, I had no desire to be messed with. I had leapt time zones and courted financial aid advisors to be sitting in that room, a supposed sacred site for pilgrims of my bent, a place purported to be a haven for skeptics and hippies and Jesus Freaks alike, and I was in no mood to be toyed with like some naïve mouse. I knew who I was, and I was here for community, damn it, and these professors better well be dishing it up as their pamphlets promised.

I ended up spending some of the best months of my life thus far at that place, with those professors and students.By the end of the semester, my cabin had split up; my roommate moved in with her boyfriend (about 500 feet down the road), another cabin-mate spent most of her time in the snowy woods writing her novel, and still another brought her girlfriend to live in the tiny closet-sized bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. By that time, several vicious and divisive fights had ensued over such important things as who last did the dishes, bought the groceries or finished off the Ramen Noodle supply. We had all come there with big dreams of common vats of hummus, late nights over yerba mate and clove cigarettes and long hours spent dreading each other’s hair. These things did happen, don’t get me wrong; but a vat of hummus and a head of dreads does not a community make.

It’s been nearly seven years to the day since I heard my professor speak those words, and in the years following that evening I have come to see their wisdom. If the concept of community was popular then, all the way back in 2001, it is almost the fad du jour now, with houses and apartment buildings springing up all over the place under the banner of intentional community. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a curmudgeonly old codger yet, but of such communities I am honestly very wary—wary in the sense that I want to be proved wrong. Twenty years from now I hope to be approached by a member of one of these intentional communities. I hope he or she flags me down on the street somewhere—Detroit, Venice, Beulah—and says, “Hey, you were wrong. I’ve been living in the same intentional community for the past twenty years and it’s worked out great. I’ve eaten 21,900 (mostly tasty, mostly homegrown) communal meals, raised kids who are curious and socialized and understand sharing, and had a life full of meaning and without too much strife (at least, not on the homefront). I still like the people I live with, and I am afforded as much privacy as I want. My intentional community works.”

Of course, this is but a fingernail, a pinkie-nail, a baby’s pinkie-nail example of one form of community. Not everyone who longs for community longs to live in the same house with a bunch of people who garden and batik and read Dostoyevsky to their kids at bedtime. It would be shortsighted and ignorant on my part to paint all folks who purposefully create community with one brush. There are, of course, many different kinds of community-focused individuals, groups and collectives out there. Some are faith-driven. Some are geographically driven.Some are interest-driven. Some communities spring up organically; people out on their front porches start talking, then start sharing after-dinner beer and lemonade, and soon you’ve got a nightly block party, with people of all different ages and races and faiths and backgrounds coming together simply because they’re neighbors and it’s fun to hang out.

I’ll be honest with you, if you haven’t caught my bias so far. I have a lot of hope for intentional community. I want all those co-housing, batik-making organic gardening places to work out in the end, namely because my husband and I hope to be a part of one in the near future.After all my growling about the doomed nature of “hippie-fied” housing, you might think I’d be too cynical to be a part of such a place. Well, that might be true, but nevertheless I am more inclined to want to live on a farm than in a city; it feels more natural to me to bond over milking a goat than waiting for a bus. That’s how I roll, but I doubt it’s the best or most natural way—as I said, I’m biased.

It seems to me that the bullshit factor of community-making is often the main impediment towards the creation and sustaining of any healthy community. To be clear, by “bullshit factor” I mean that when any group of people comes together for a common goal that they all love and cling to, that very clinging can obstruct the kind of raw honesty that is needed for a community to remain dynamic and alive. When things need to change and we don’t want them to, or when our ideas are disagreed with, it is pretty well human nature for us to get defensive. We are prone to bullshitting ourselves into believing that there is one way to do things (our way), one ideal, and anything or person who stands in opposition to this is wrong. For this reason, I have to say that I truly believe that it is easier and more natural to build a lasting community based on geography, e.g. the neighborhood, porch-sitting block party, than to create one based on shared ideals. It is my opinion that true community is more likely to happen in those situations that are not contrived by our own means or grand visions, where no council meets to decide on who pays for what and when, and when no group writes a mission statement regarding the purpose of their collective. In short, I believe that communities held together by simple geography are more likely to remain sustainable as they are not based on the ideals of any one person or group, and thus are less vulnerable to the shortsightedness of such folks.

And there’s the catch-22. I think for most folks, myself included, the temptation to survive on ideals alone is enough to get in the way of building anything lasting. The problem is inherent to the situation, as most people who desire to create community intentionally are people who are guided by a sense of idealism. That’s okay, that’s good and necessary and normal. This does not mean that such folks aren’t practical, but at the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I would guess that often, groups who build things on shared ideals alone are destined to contend with some fissures in their building, so to speak, somewhere down the line. And again, this is where the bullshit factor comes in. We humans (and again, I speak for myself if for no one else) hate to acknowledge the blindspots in our idealistic vision. We make grand meals out of grass-fed beef and organic carrot cream soup, only to find out that half of the folks at the table are vegan. We design houses fit for off-grid kings and queens only to discover that Meadow likes to take 45-minute showers. We come together over shared ideals and fall apart over our own humanity. These are the fissures I’m talking about. And it is also the fodder for true community.

There is hope for us, I think, in the acknowledgment of our own humanity; that is to say, our hypocrisies, our stubbornness, our capacity for change.Despite my wailing against idealism as the bane of true community, I believe that anyone who seeks to be a part of a community must hold to the ideal that we are all human, all dirty, all capable of making big mistakes and of offending often and without apology. When you see the Buddha of Community in the street, as they say, you must kill it. When you’ve latched on to one idea, one right answer, that is the time that you have to let it go—and this koan applies directly to the concept of communal living. Living in community is not about being happy, or safe, or a good steward, although if you are lucky, these things might happen in spite of you. Living in community does not make you a better person than your friend who drives a Hummer and owns a McMansion in the suburbs, although it is likely to make you more judgmental of others, if you don’t watch out. Living in community does not make you hip or smart or more in touch with the earth, but it might make you feel exposed and angry and more wary of your privacy.

So yeah, Professor John, you were right: community is bullshit. And as every good farmer knows, bullshit is beautiful.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus