Are You Right for Communal Living?

Communities abound everywhere, some more utopic-like than others, but all share common elements that define their usefulness for humans as social beings. Are you right for communal living?

Picking the right community to suit your needs could be a complex and arduous task. That depends, of course, on how well you know yourself and what you expect to get out of a chosen community. To help you decide, the founders of Growing Community Associates, Carolyn Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen, provide a valuable resource in their new book, Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support and Connection in a Fragmented World (Tarcher/Putnam).

Different forms of community and the various levels of commitment required will affect which opportunity for communal sharing may appeal to you. You may, for example, desire less intimate living companions, but have a short-term need for a support group, perhaps to weather the storm of an illness or an addiction. Alternately, you may wish to engage in participatory elocution via a computer modem to a byte-sized audience. Whether you are looking for colleagues in learning or for siblings in paradise, be prepared to work.

By your participation, you are a co-creator of your chosen community. This community will reflect the social skills that you bring with you: the prime environment for meeting self in others. As in other relationships, your shadow will follow, and it will become necessary to make friends with it. Often the origins of community dysfunction are due to unresolved family projections, where members ascribe to others their own anxiety-producing ideas or emotions. Therefore, the realization of your hopes, dreams, and fantasies depend upon mutual projections of shared visions or purpose with the entire group. Each member, regardless of individual tasks, shares the responsibility for the failures as well as the successes of the community. The consequent development in healthy communication skills, inclusive decision making, and fair conflict resolution can make your personal investment worthwhile.

Communities generally encompass three dimensions that satisfy a participant's search. These dimensions are length, breadth, and depth. How long has the group shared experiences and how committed are you to continue that sharing? How many facets of your life do you share, and how wide of a range of people and experiences is included? How deep, thorough, or intimate are these relationships? These experiences can be as short as the length of a public workshop, or there can be longer goals, as in visionary residential projects.

At first, community building may appear unrealistic, where people seek relationships that are conflict-avoiding rather than conflict-resolving. This oversight can become destructive when a group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense, "whereby people who want to be loving"–to quote Scott Peck–"attempt to be so by telling little white lies." Particularly at the start, group members will encounter in others some aspects of themselves with which they are not comfortable. Learning how to handle this unavoidable challenge is a prerequisite to successful community building.

Once past the initial phase, group members progress at their own rate to the advanced stages of autonomy, stability, synergy, and finally transformation. Each phase of community that you experience, regardless of type, promises some opportunity for developing greater awareness, discovering deeper truth, and becoming more fully human.

(Digest by Clayton Montez, Atlantic University.)