When Does a Private Issue Become a Group Issue?
When people create intentional community they are purposefully choosing a culture that is shifted more toward the “we” end of the spectrum and away from the “I” end. People living in community are, by design, opting for a social reality in which their lives will be more interwoven with those of fellow members and less autonomous. In consequence, there will be a number of decisions that you may be used to making solely as an individual (or as a household) that you are now obliged to work out with fellow community members—because your choices may impact others, and you’ve agreed that you’re in this together.
Let me walk you through this.
Suppose you want to cut down a tree in front your house that’s getting so high that it’s shading the solar panels on your roof. Let’s further suppose that: a) the tree is growing in lawn that is within the space immediately around your house that is defined by the community’s covenants as yours to control (often referred to in community lingo as “limited private element”) and b) there is an explicit community agreement that if you propose to do anything that impacts your neighbors that you’re expected to consult with them first and make a good faith effort to find a course of action that’s mutually agreeable.
In the mainstream world, so long as the tree is on your property, you’d have the right to cut it down whenever you wanted. Your only risk would be accidentally felling the tree onto your neighbor’s roof, car, or (heaven forbid) their children who wanted to get close enough to witness your Paul Bunyan moment.
In community this is much more complicated.
o First of all, you’d be less likely to own your own chain saw, because community is all about shared living and how many chain saws does a community need anyway? If you’re proposing to use the community’s chain saw, you be smart to reserve it ahead of time because someone else may want it at the same time you do. What’s more, you probably can’t count on the chain being sharp, or there being enough fuel on hand, so that means setting aside time to see that those things have been taken care of ahead of need.
o While few people think it’s a good idea to run a chain saw in the dark (visibility being directly related to safety) there’s an issue around noise. If your fire up a chain saw at first light, most people will not thank you for substituting Stihl-ness for stillness—waking up to the roar of a chain saw is highly unpleasant and it’s prudent to accept guidance from the neighbors about appropriate hours for running noisy machines, and then giving everyone a heads up about the exact time you expect to be doing the work, so that they can get their children, pets, and cars safely away from the action.
o There is also a nuance around parameters a) and b) above. From a) it follows that it’s wholly your call whether the tree should come down. Despite that, however, you could run afoul of b). Suppose, for example, that the tree provides welcome afternoon shade for the neighbor immediately to your east. Under those circumstances it’s possible that what you’re doing to reduce energy costs for your house (by increasing solar gain) will increase costs for your neighbors (because their air conditioning will have to work harder to maintain comfortable temperatures in summer).
Worse, you may not even know that your neighbor benefits from the shade of that tree, and that you are at risk for stepping on a landmine you didn’t know existed if you blithely ignore the basic principle that undergirds b): measure (your neighbors) twice, cut once.
Note in this hypothetical example that you have a good reason for cutting down the tree—one that’s directly in line with a core community value of being energy conscious. But that doesn’t mean you have the only valid perspective on the issue. Remember the part about being in this together? The fact that you couldn’t think of any reason that the neighbors might object to your taking down the tree, doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t one.
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Now I want to take this a step further. For some class of decisions, the whole group needs a chance to have their oar in the water. For another class of decisions, the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, yet they are expected to create an opportunity to hear and work through people’s reactions.
All Skate Decisions
The kind of decisions that may shift from unilateral in the mainstream to being made by the plenary (or its designate) in community are things like:
o Anything relating to group covenants or interpretations on common values, all of which can be understood as voluntary limitations on what an individual can do. For example, at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit there are agreements that members will rely wholly on vehicles owned collectively by the community: no private cars.
o Who is an authorized spokesperson for representing the community when talking with the press.
o Who is authorized to sign contracts on behalf of the community.
o Who are check signers on the community account.
o What color you paint the outside of your house. (Not all communities try to control the outside aesthetic, but some do.)
o How shared assets are maintained and accessed.
In these kinds of things, the group supplants the individual as primary decision maker. To be sure, the individual still has a say in what happens, but each voice counts the same. The operant shibboleth here is: you’re in good hands with all skate. (Either that, or you’re in the wrong group.)
Personal Decisions that Impact the Group
That said, there is a second class of decisions where the community may want/need a collective venue to process a choice made by an individual, where there’s no intention of asserting a community right to make the decision. Examples of that include:
—Where there’s been a break up of an intimate relationship, and both people are trying to continue to live in the community. While no one is suggesting that the community should have a say about who you partner with, changes in intimacy can have a profound impact on group dynamics and it can help enormously if there’s a way to unpack those feelings (other than by gossiping in the parking lot). Non-principals can be in anguish about to how to reach out to one party in the break-up without it being construed as taking sides.
—Where there’s tension about the range of different ways that parents set limits for their children. Though it’s highly unlikely that the community will attempt to tell parents how to raise their children, it can be very awkward threading the needle when trying to set limits as a non-parent supervising two children who are being raised in very different ways.
—Where there’s tension about the range of different ways that parents educate their children. Again, schooling decisions generally remain with the parents, yet children who are homeschooled (or children going to public school for that matter) may not be thriving, with the result that difficult behaviors show up in the community arena. How do you talk about frustrations associated with obstreperous behavior in the group context, in part because the parent has made choices about their child’s education out of ideological reasons that are not working well for the child?
—Where there’s persistent negativity and low trust between two or more longstanding members. While you can’t make people get along, there’s a point where the swamp gas of festering enmity poisons the atmosphere in group settings.
—Where there’s a clash of personalities and styles that surfaces in the group context. What’s loud, obnoxious, and bullying to one person may be exuberance and passionate expression to another. Given that you’re unlikely to outlaw certain personalities, you need a way to discuss how you’re going to translate your core commitment to diversity into a culture that is home for all.
—Where there’s been a major trauma in a member’s life (severe accident, prolonged illness, suicide of a loved one). It’s not unusual for people who suffer major setbacks to grieve and recover privately. Yet that doesn’t mean that others in the group are unaffected by events.
[As a case in point, more than 10 years ago my community, Sandhill Farm, went through a gut-wrenching time when a visitor lost most of the fingers on her right hand when she accidentally got a glove caught in the roller mill we use to crush sorghum cane during our fall harvest. While there’s no question that the woman was the person most profoundly affected by the accident, the community still needed to emotionally cope what happened and we made time that evening for people to simply share from their hearts. It was not about assigning blame; it was about staying connected and offering succor to one another in response to tragedy.]
The point of this class of decisions is to acknowledge the need for a way to get information out on the table (ahead of the rumor mill) and to process feelings that get stirred up among non-principals, such as sorrow, joy, anger, and confusion. This is not meant as an opportunity to judge others; it’s a chance to tend to relationships that are strained as a result of the stress radiating out beyond the immediate players. This is not about problem solving; it’s about nurturing connections, which are the backbone of community.
This is all the more important because it rarely happens in the mainstream (which means that people come into the community experience with little sense of why this might be needed or how to set this up to be constructive), yet it can be enormously beneficial for the community as it strives to maintain cohesion and suppleness through trying times.
• • •
In conclusion, private matters become group matters when decisions impact the group in non-trivial ways. This will happen more often in community living than in the mainstream because community culture is shifted more toward “we” and intertwined living naturally creates more opportunities for the group to be affected by individual actions.
In addition, there is an important distinction between: a) things that the plenary controls instead of the individual (the first class above); and b) things for which the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, but about which the group needs a chance to explore the emotional swirls that surface as a result of being collaterally impacted by those choices (the second class above).
To navigate this territory well, groups need to be able to distinguish between the two classes, and have in mind how to handle each conversation with sensitivity and compassion. I’m not saying that’s easy, but it can be done and is well worth the effort to learn how to do it.
Tags: Group Process