CREATING AND MAINTAINING HARMONIOUS COMMUNITY:
Is It Possible?
Carolyn Baker, Ph.D.
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May 15, 2006 1100 PST – (FTW) - Is this an ad we might see posted on a tree or building in the post-petroleum age?: “WANTED: THERAPIST TO HELP RESOLVE COMMUNITY CONFLICTS. CANNOT PAY MONEY, BUT WILL PROVIDE FOOD, WATER, AND SHELTER.” Those of us who have spent many years in the counseling profession may have a strategic role in post-carbon communities—or not. Actually, for many of us, the promise of someone else providing food, water, and shelter, could be a welcome respite from years of struggling to make ends meet in a culture that increasingly de-values any form of introspection, especially with the assistance of a helping professional. But that’s another story. The story of the future is one in which everyone will have to be his/her own therapist, counselor, mentor, and sage. While this may sound antithetical to all I’ve said about being in community I hasten to add that being one’s own therapist will not, and cannot be done in isolation. Author and critic of Western civilization, Derrick Jensen, teaches and writes with one question in mind for his students and readers: Who are you? I can think of no eventuality on earth more evocative of this question than civilization’s collapse. “Who am I?” must be our North Star as we attempt to navigate creating and maintaining community in a cataclysmic world.
Now that we know that we are wired to experience community, that there is a price to be paid for it, and that it will involve protracted, daunting struggle, the nuts and bolts reality of making it happen successfully is the next issue. Perhaps it would be well to define what success does and does not mean. Success does not mean that everyone will agree, that everyone will see the community’s issues from the same perspective, that everyone will ultimately resolve conflict harmoniously, or that everyone will come to a consensus. What it does mean is that by holding compassion as the key to our effectiveness and remaining compassionate, by being willing to hear everyone else, willing to remain in the struggle, and always with a palpable awareness of what’s at stake, we keep going. Sometimes we will need to take space, feel rage, despair, sadness, ambivalence, or even numbness, but we persevere. As I emphasized in Part One, darkness will erupt, not only from every nook, cranny, and pore of the external world, but especially from within us. The “Who Am I?” question will reverberate through every fiber of our being and will hopefully guide us to appreciate not only our uniqueness but what we share in common with the human and non-human world.
Paradoxically, until we have sufficiently focused on “Who am I?” we will not be able to appreciate or answer the “Who are you?” question. Instead, we will project our own darkness, fear, disappointment, dashed hopes, neediness, control issues, and a host of other internal wounds on those around us. (“It’s all about you; it’s certainly not about me.”) Community offers us the opportunity (or may force us) to work on both questions and begin discovering new answers. This will be a Herculean task because our culture has socialized us to be either dependent or independent. Most people know how to do one or the other really well. However, creating and maintaining community demands that we function interdependently, and all of our programming will mitigate against doing so.
Conflict is GOOD; Get Used To It
Should those “positive thinking” readers of these articles have doubts about the necessity and value of conflict, I refer to Michael Kane’s current From The Wilderness article series Are The Angels Listening? in which he reminds us to “think indigenous.” Throughout indigenous cultures worldwide, conflict is perceived not as a threat to community but the backbone of it. Through conflict, individuals and the entire community are made and remade—transformed, wizened, and woven more intimately into the fabric of relatedness. I would be terribly concerned about a community where conflict did not exist, where, God forbid, “everything flows.” Lurking behind the fragrance of incense and roses are demons capable of emotionally eviscerating unconscious individuals and the illusion of community which they have so blissfully and cluelessly created.
Jason Bradford, who is coordinating relocalization in Willits, California, speaks of “downscaling expectations” and reminds us that resentments are expectations that have not been met. When conflicts arise, it is very often because of the implicit expectations that we bring to the table and of which we are only superficially aware.
From what I have witnessed and experienced in community endeavors, I see three classic pitfalls that may obscure or distract from the community’s mission. The first is arrogance, i.e., “You’re not doing it right; you haven’t resolved your issues. I have. I am more emotionally and spiritually evolved or politically seasoned than you are. When you do things my way, the community will be successful. Until then, I need to put my energy elsewhere.” I’ll be quite honest here: I have no tolerance for this one, and I have not handled it well in the past. It is probably the most alienating of all attitudes, and many of us need to do a lot of work with ourselves when it comes up. Quite frankly, this attitude results from the very opposite message it purports to convey. This individual is insecure, needy, terrified, and is desperate to be in control. Her attitude is similar to an experienced driver getting in the car with a teenage driver-training student. What this person does not understand is that in a collapsing world, he is the driver training student because he knows absolutely nothing—I said N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Clearly, he does not understand what’s at stake and still doesn’t get what collapse will mean for himself and those around him. None of us has ever been up this mountain before, so to proclaim that “I can show you a better way up the mountain,” is absurd.
Only an attitude of humility can contain arrogance. It has often been said that the moment one is aware of being humble, one is not; nevertheless, holding the intention is critical to resolving conflict. Holding the intention requires understanding that being in this particular place, at this particular time, with these particular people is a precious gift, and in all likelihood, the most formidable “assignment” one has ever received in the earth school. It means an ongoing awareness that one is not here to “teach,” “correct,” or “admonish” others in “how to do it right” but rather to listen and learn. Native Americans are fond of pointing out that the Creator gave us two eyes, two ears, and only one mouth, then asking, “Why do you think that is?” Every person in my community is my teacher, and no matter how much I may detest her/him, I have been put in her/his path as a student, because essentially, I know nothing about how to survive or thrive in a post-petroleum world. Sitting at home on my computer, surfing the web, shopping online, and having products delivered to my door has not prepared me for this. A long, tedious, painful learning process is the only thing that can equip me to live in community.
This does not mean that all the life experience, skills, and wisdom that we have gained prior to creating community is for naught. These are precious treasures to be cherished and savored, but they may or not be useful in getting up this particular mountain, at this particular time.
Yet another pitfall in creating community is envy. I used to believe that women had a corner on this character defect, but not anymore. Envy will be particularly difficult to resist in a post-carbon world. When one is hungry, exhausted, poor, and traumatized, envy will be almost unavoidable—just ask the homeless or the starving masses in Darfur. Envy will be much easier to navigate if we can detach from our entitlements and our self-pitying notions about the “unfairness” of life. In other words, here I am sitting in the midst of collapse. I’m fortunate to have one meal a day, fortunate to have one clean glass of water a day, fortunate to have a place to sleep, fortunate to have other human beings around me who want to support me in my survival and who want my help in supporting theirs. Why am I here? What is my purpose here? What do I have to give? Making a list of what I have that others might envy could be useful because it is, in fact, a gratitude list, and even in the midst of the worst ramifications of Peak Oil, global warming, and economic collapse, we will all have something—probably many things to be grateful for.
Then of course, being the product of Western civilization that we all are, many of us will have “control issues.” The need to control is based on nothing more or less than fear—fear that someone will get hurt if we don’t follow my plan, fear that we won’t survive, fear that we will be disappointed, betrayed, or somehow harmed if there isn’t sufficient “behavioral management.”
Fear will be menacing and probably epidemic as we slide, stumble, or plummet into collapse. Some of it will be real; some of it will be inflated. When I endeavor to educate folks about Peak Oil, I am often accused of being a “fearmonger,” heralding like Chicken Little, that the sky is falling. My response is usually that if I were in a crowded theater and smelled smoke and saw flames, nothing would be more appropriate than to yell, “Fire!”. Fear is a natural human emotion that has allowed our species to survive for millions of years; without it, we wouldn’t have come this far. Anyone who knows the facts regarding Peak Oil, global economics, and global warming, and does not feel some fear, should have vital signs checked to determine if he is still alive. However, living in fear is not the purpose of this fundamental survival emotion. As the civilization around us deteriorates, it may become exceedingly difficult not to live in fear. Fear is intimately connected with loss, and as people lose jobs, homes, possessions, resources, dreams, and loved ones around them, the line between fear’s reality base and its illusions may become increasingly blurred.
May The Force Be With You
So how do we work with, instead of against, these staggering challenges? If we are going to “think indigenous,” and I don’t know of a better approach, we need to ground ourselves in something greater than ourselves. Most people who call themselves “atheists” may recoil at what follows, and even more, my saying that I have actually never met a real atheist. Everyone I’ve met who claims to be one has invariably demonstrated to me that she/he embraces something greater than his/her own ego identity. Whether one chooses to call it humanism, beauty, or justice, these are, in my opinion, qualities of the sacred. But then, that’s just me. This article is not about atheism which is another conversation for another day. What matters is that one finds some meaningful force or principle on which to firmly plant one’s feet as life as we have known it shatters around us.
Whether we agree with it or not, one aspect of indigenous survival has been a tenacious commitment to the sacred—sacred places, sacred ritual, meditation, Tai Chi, massage, yoga, the use of art, drumming, music, storytelling, and dance as tools for making sense of one’s experience. I believe that successful community cannot be created or maintained unless the individuals in it utilize these implements of grounding and interconnectedness with the spiritual dimension of the human and non-human worlds. Not everyone in the community will agree on how or when they should utilize the sacred in its myriad forms, nor in my opinion, should everyone agree. Unanimous agreement constitutes a cult, not a community. Diversity challenges harmony but paradoxically nurtures it when diversity’s gifts are respectfully honored.
I strongly recommend Jan Steinman’s and Diana Leafe Christian’s article, Community Survival During The Coming Energy Decline. This thought-provoking piece tackles a number of thorny issues related to community living. Above all, let’s remember that some things can be prepared for, and others cannot. We can live as sustainably as humanly possible and prepare for the Terminal Triangle as thoroughly as our minds, bodies, and resources permit, but when we find ourselves sharing our drastically-altered lifestyle with other human beings in a manner that challenges us to reverse everything we have ever learned about who we are and how we relate to others, we will be experiencing nothing less than in some sense, returning to a primal era of human history which our ancestors knew well, and about which we know very little. For this we will need much more than a therapist, a cache of precious metals, and a plethora of cherished notions about “how to do it right.”
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