CREATING AND MAINTAINING HARMONIOUS COMMUNITY:
Is It Possible?
Carolyn Baker, Ph.D.
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May 11, 2006 0800 PST – (FTW) - Wherever I travel in America, with whomever I speak regarding Peak Oil and the collapse of civilization, I hear the same lament: “We can’t create community; we can’t organize a group of folks who can put aside their egos and personal emotional baggage long enough to get meaningful efforts toward sustainability off the ground. Everyone has great ideas, but when it comes to implementing them, we sabotage ourselves with resentments, defensiveness, competition, and unresolved issues within ourselves and with each other.” All of this has set me thinking and sitting with the daunting challenge of how a group of people who want to say goodbye to a world of overconsumption, waste, crass materialism, and endgame thinking and living can actually create thriving, vibrant, compatible community. Hence my decision to write a two-part article on what needs to happen within individuals and among groups to make real the ideal that lives in our hearts and minds—that women, men, children, and all living things can fashion the conditions that facilitate harmonious habitation with each other and the ecosystems.
We All Want It
Before launching on this journey, it may be well to remind ourselves that everyone deeply desires community. No matter how hermetically sealed our lives may be, no matter how much we cherish our personal space, no matter how “burned” we may feel by past experiences with groups, something in us aches for the experience of authentic belonging. I happen to believe that “community” is an archetype imbedded in the human psyche—a universal motif like mother, father, marriage, child, healer, warrior, and a plethora of other fundamental themes that comprise our humanity worldwide regardless of culture or ethnicity. In America, as perhaps no other place or period in history, this archetype has been disowned in favor of bootstrap pulling and “doing it my way.”
It is useful to recall that all of us are descendants of tribal peoples whose lives revolved around and were shaped moment-to-moment by community. I believe that an ancient memory of tribal life—the good, the bad, and everything in between, exists in us. In disavowing our need to belong and be held lovingly by our “tribe,” we may get married, create individual families, join gangs, secret societies, or work seventy hours a week in order to either satisfy or obliterate our inherent longing for belonging.
A decade ago I had the privilege of working with an African shaman, Malidoma Some, an initiated member of the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso. As I heard and read stories of Malidoma’s tribe, I was astounded by the ways in which community molded every aspect of their lives. When Malidoma once said, “I had so many mothers that sometimes I didn’t know who my real mother was,” I finally comprehended the essence of “It takes a village to raise a child.” I don’t know that I could allow myself to be as immersed in community as the Dagara are, but I do know that the innate longing for it in myself and every human I’ve ever met is overwhelming and cannot be reasoned or explained away.
Ah, community—just thinking the word is heartwarming. What lovely images it evokes—a group of trusted friends sitting around a fireplace on a snowy winter night; a gathering of families on a camping trip with parents and kids swimming in a cool, refreshing lake; or having your friends over for dinner and cooking the most exquisite meal you can imagine and sharing it with them. Unspeakably gratifying, right? Well, yes, until you realize that this “snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug” feeling has a price, and it isn’t a small one.
Tribal cultures over the millennia have been forced to create community for the same reasons we face as we confront the Terminal Triangle of Peak Oil, Global Warming, and Global Economic Collapse. Coping with earthquakes, floods, packs of hungry animals, plagues, fires, famine, and rival warring tribes, the earliest humans banded together in communities as a matter of necessity. Survival dictated cooperation—just as it most certainly will in the years ahead of us. But since physical survival was their most primal need, these humans could form tribes and live not for themselves, but for the group. Perhaps we should call in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, i.e., who gives a rip about ipods and 401K’s when one is starving, dying of thirst, or critically ill with no health care in sight?
You Mean There’s A Price?
My own feeling is that until humans of the twenty-first century approach this level of dire survival reality, they won’t even consider the need for community, and if they do, they will not be ready to do what it takes in order to make community living work. So what does it take?
First, in my opinion, people attempting to create community must—I repeat must, deal with the darkness in the world and within themselves. This is overwhelmingly the principle cause I have witnessed for community failure. As Jung stated, human beings can’t take hearing/seeing too much reality. That must change if one expects to create a healthy community. While it will be extraordinarily agonizing to witness death around us, should we survive—natural disasters, pandemics, starvation, lack of health care, masses of homeless people wandering what used to be the streets, suicides, violence spontaneously erupting in our neighborhoods, people around us having psychotic breaks, lack of clean water (did someone say “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”?), perhaps nothing will be as wrenching as facing the darkness within ourselves. Collapse will bring tremendous fear, in ourselves and in others. Some aspects of it will no doubt be traumatic, and trauma evokes old wounds, the ones we haven’t fully resolved or even acknowledged. Those informed about the Terminal Triangle will realize that the ruling elite, not her neighbor is at fault, but there will be more than enough blame to go around as those who are clueless about the Triangle flounder and project their worst fears on the innocent. Well-informed as any of us may be, it will be very tempting, almost unavoidable, to project our fears on those who are supposed to be our allies. Fear is a divider, and it must be contained by a bone-marrow awareness of what’s at stake.
One of the things that I find deeply disturbing in some alternative living and sustainability groups is tenacious adherence to “positive thinking.” Without exception, I find this to be yet another form of denial couched in the language of spirituality and metaphysics. While it is important to temper the darkness around us with light, humor, and beauty, the cellularly-experienced reality that appears at this moment unstoppable is the equivalent of a bullet train filled with passengers crashing into a cement wall at lightning speed. Economically, socially, and spiritually, the most powerful and affluent nation in the history of the world is on such a collision course, which in my opinion, is not likely to be altered, but is likely to result over time, not overnight, in unspeakable anguish for all living things.
Spiritual scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, recently wrote that positive thinking can be a route to spiritual and political disaster. In her article, “Look On The Dark Side Of Life,” Armstrong states that, “Increasingly, it is becoming unacceptable to voice legitimate distress. If you lose your job, become chronically ill, or fall prey to loneliness or depression, you are likely to be told—often abrasively—to look on the bright side. With unseemly haste, people rush to put an optimistic gloss on a disaster or to suggest a patently unworkable solution.”
Kira Cochrane’s priceless article, “The Cult Of Cheerfulness”, notes that “One of the most insidious effects of this culture is the extent to which it loads shame and self-loathing on the individual. With its teaching that any failures are simply the result of having the wrong attitude…it offers an obvious recipe for self-hatred.” Positive thinking and the “blame the victim” mentality that attends it, is in my opinion, far more lethal to its adherents than learning the full extent of their government’s corruption, the lies that led us into the Iraq War, or the detailed ramifications of the Terminal Triangle.
As author and psychotherapist, Thomas Moore notes in Dark Nights Of The Soul, our guiding principle should be a “homeopathic” approach to the darkness. Homeopathy, of course, uses small doses of certain substances to produce the exact symptom from which the patient is suffering, the purpose being to “go with” rather than against the illness. Western medicine is allopathic, meaning that it endeavors to attack and conquer illness. I hasten to add that I’m not condoning or glorifying darkness but rather suggesting as Moore does, that we “deal with the darkness in ways that are in tune with the dark.” It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves, he says, that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.
I have more than once been accused of being a “darkness junkie” by people who don’t want to feel depressed and want me to offer hope. As James Howard Kuntsler, author of The Long Emergency stated recently, most Americans like others who dispense hope and do not like those who tell them the truth. What these folks are really saying is not that they don’t want to feel “badly” but that they don’t want to feel! How could this not be so in this culture of numbness and bloated optimism where addiction to substances, porn, and slasher movies rivals the days of Rome’s “Bread and Circuses” for stimulating adrenaline and ribald sensibilities?
What I find ironic is that for all my inculcation of life’s grim statistics, I am essentially a joyful person who loves life and finds immense pleasure in it, probably more so than the average American who says, “Oh don’t say that; it’s so depressing.” For me, the horror of our current moment in history is that in their essence, human beings, animals, the earth, and the cosmos, are so extraordinarily, exquisitely good and lovely. To those half-alive individuals who “don’t want to look at darkness,” I would ask: Have you ever made love in the desert at night, covered only with a teeming canopy of billions of stars? Have you ever sat for three hours and watched a hawk soar in the sky? When was the last time you savored, I mean really savored, an orange, a sip of red wine, or a bite of sweet, dark chocolate? Until you have consciously immersed yourself in the full range of your God-given human emotions, don’t tell me that the truth I tell you, depresses you. My favorite poet of all time, Mary Oliver, says it best: “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”
Darkness, for all its pain, is supremely enlivening. We need only recall Gandhi, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela to know that this is so.
Facing The Truth Engenders A Grieving Process
At the same time, I am well aware that whenever people allow themselves to descend through the layers of darkness in which our culture and world appear to be marinated, they soon realize that a vast array of hopes and dreams related to their future, may never be realized. Grandchildren may never be seen; the ecosystems may become uninhabitable; in the not-too-distant future, the number one priority of one’s day may be finding a drink of clean water; one’s own longevity is now highly uncertain. We all need tremendous compassion for ourselves, for those struggling to accept the way things really are, and for those still in denial. When hopes and dreams are dashed, it is virtually impossible to move through them without community—yet another reason why most Americans prefer to remain in denial. It’s painful to face the truth, but excruciating to be alone with it.
Related to positive thinking is yet another fallacy, the “romance” of creating community. Some individuals who want to create community view it as a sixties redux—another Woodstock, back-to-nature extravaganza. Won’t it be “cool” to have no electricity and burn candles instead? How awesome it will be to grow one’s own food! Gee, we’ll be able to grow lots of hemp too—and “related products.” May I remind these wannbe Amish that back in the sixties when community living was a luxury, not a necessity on which lives depended, people could afford to be romantic about it. On the "cusp of collapse", as Mike Ruppert names it, creating and maintaining harmonious community is a matter of one’s life and death. In a recent conversation I had with Jason Bradford, Ph.D., botanist, and community organizer in Willits, California, he emphasized that the people in Willits who have stuck with its remarkable sustainability efforts and are successfully building community are those with a sense of urgency, who realize that they have no time to mess around, and who have the maturity to address their personal issues—along with sustainability issues—as quickly as possible.
So now that we know we are fundamentally wired to experience community, and now that we know that we must open to the darkness in ourselves and around us in order to do so, what are the basic tools? Since we aren’t in Pop Psychology, Kansas anymore, very likely to witness at least the beginnings of the collapse of Western civilization, how do we create and maintain the community we so desperately crave and need? In the second part of this article, I will address this issue, offering specific suggestions from my perspective, fully aware that I do not possess the whole story about community. None of us do—we must write that story together in our struggle for survival and our passion to create a saner, more sustainable way of living at an unprecedented time in the history of planet earth.
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