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Week 8: The Weirdness of Community (Ed Watson, SHH '13)

(This blog post is a little delayed because of Hurricane Sandy: apologies for that. I will write up a proper post about Sandy next week, when there’s some perspective on the overall damage caused. Suffice to say for now that New Haven was incredibly fortunate and suffered only minor damage and flooding, though some of the surrounding towns were hit far worse.)

Almost two months now since I arrived in America: as with all these things, it feels like an eternity that’s just flown by. My routines have settled: I always leave the house for work looking my usual complete shambles, then stop off at Blue State Coffee to order my mocha, put on my tie, and tuck in my shirt (it’s like Clark Kent turning into Superman). I do my best to spend Tuesday evenings out of the house, just so I get a little time to call my own apart from both work and community. The dishes are a major part of my week. Church also provides a nice structure: I’m not a natural church goer, but I’m finding that making the effort prevents the chaos beyond from overwhelming, if only because it ensures that there is at least half an hour every day where I am forced to stop working (though it will surprise none that know me to learn that I don’t often find that overly difficult).

Life in St Martin’s Grad Support is engaging as ever. We’re starting to develop a proper system to ensure students are productive for most of the time they spend with us, without being overworked, and I’m really enjoying getting to know all the different characters who frequent Afternoon Study. At some point I’ll write a full piece about what my experiences are teaching me about extreme poverty. This week, however, I just want to give a brief sketch of some of the stranger elements of living in community.

Anyone who’s gone to boarding school (a whole 1% of British School-children according to Wikipedia!) knows what it’s like to live in a house where there is no such thing as privacy. A boarding house, however, does not entirely negate the possibility of individualism, at least not to the same extent. What do I mean by this? I mean that unlike in intentional community, a boarding house does not require that every personal instinct or inclination be superseded by the needs of the community. This is, as far as I can see, the first principle of community: that you enter into it knowing that you must dedicate yourself to the wellbeing of that community above all else. One example of what this means in practise: in community, romantic relationships must take place in a public setting: as such, the undertaking of such relationships must be discussed by the community as a whole, not just the individuals involved.

I might be making this sound quite bleak: it’s not. It’s a pretty fundamental precept of many ethical systems, religious and secular, that true happiness is achieved not through the fulfilment of personal desire but through attempting to dedicate yourself to the service of others: in pseudo-formal terms, ‘real’ happiness is directed outwards, founded upon the wellbeing of others. An intentional community is just a community founded upon an explicit and localised version of this principle, both in terms of the community itself and in terms of those institutions and individuals the community hopes to serve, whether it be in projects like AIDs New Haven or ISIS refugee shelter.

So far, so potentially self-righteous. The really interesting thing about living in this intentional community, or at least living in this intentional community, is just how weird some of the things we do are. I’m going to pick two examples: the first is the way we decided to cap off our house rules, hashed out in extreme detail over the course of about a month. We decided that it was necessary to make explicit a sort of house mission statement: a summation of both what we hope to achieve and the character in which we hope to achieve it. It’s the sort of thing which might easily sound superfluous: that was certainly my initial opinion (I eventually decided that it was actually incredibly important: there are going to be times when I act in ways which are incompatible with living in community, and at those times it will be necessary for my attention to be drawn to a set of principles to remind me of the standard I signed up to).

This being a Christian community, over the course of a week members of the house wrote up Biblical passages which they felt best encapsulated the principles according to which a community should love (along with a few more secular offerings: my contribution was nicked from something my Dad has always said; that we should try and live such that we are people whom others are better for having met). We then read through each of the different contributions at house meeting, thought silently for a minute or so, then put forward a word or short phrase which had particularly resonated with us. What we were left with was a sort of poetic post-modern construct, which when read seemed the sort of thing which would serve as a perfectly adequate set of principles according to which we could try and live. This is an inherently weird way of doing things: the weirdest thing about it is that it worked.

from our Michaelmas term retreat.

The second thing I’d like to mention is the retreat we went on this weekend. The house left New Haven on Thursday to spend two nights at Camp Incarnation, a summer camp lifted straight out of Friday the 13th (I of course ended up sleeping in Room 13, less than a week before Halloween). This extended weekend presented an opportunity to recharge our batteries out in the superlatively beautiful autumnal countryside: first and foremost, though, we were there to share our ‘faith journeys’. Weird.

I was more than sceptical as we set out, not least because I didn’t see that I personally had anything much to say (my story runs thus: I woke up one morning about two and a half years ago believing in God, and that’s about it. I’ve developed my account of what belief in God actually means, but not in an fundamental way: more making sense of it in relation to the various positions I hold when it comes to various philosophical debates). In any case, I didn’t see what exactly were we likely to achieve by sitting and splurging out our stories.

My scepticism was unfounded. First up, the retreat clarified something something I’ve always believed but never completely understood: the fact that for religious people, faith cannot be divorced from the ebb and flow of life, both in the general and particular. The faith stories shared were not isolated threads of a greater life story, but rather that which made sense of all else.

Secondly, the retreat demanded a leap of faith on the part of all present: specifically, faith in those others listening. I am not going to discuss the content of any story because they were told in trust. The total, crushing honesty of every story was a wonder to behold, and it was something that was only possible in a context of total and utter trust.

This is perhaps the most striking feature of living in community: it demands complete trust and total openness. It demands that the individuals who make up the community let down the defences which protect individual safety and instead accept a terrifying vulnerability to allow understanding. The impact is huge: to tell your story, to not just one close friend but to eleven people who not two months ago were total strangers, and to find that story accepted is uplifting in a way I haven’t really found elsewhere. The same is true of the feeling that other people trust you enough to tell you their story. It’s terrifying, and exhausting, but it leaves you with a feeling not dissimilar to that of drinking a single cask single malt.

Anyway, community living is weird. It entails doing things that jump right off the rails of normal group interaction. But again, the weirdest thing about it is that the upshot of all this weirdness is not the formation of some cultish commune but the provision of the support and security we sometimes need to go out into the harsh realities of modern life and do what little we can to change those realities, even if only for a few people and even if only for a short time (though I believe that many of my housemates are currently doing permanent good, however naive that might sound). That service, whatever its worth, could not exist as it does apart from the weirdness behind it: as such, the weirdness is wonderful, and I’m very much enjoying living in a very weird community.

to read more of Ed's blog...

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