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Intentional Community, Part 3

(Intentional Community . . . )

The first assumption is that we all speak the same language, that the same words mean the same thing to everyone. Not so. We may all dedicate ourselves to living mindfully in the spirit of love, unity, honesty and service; however, love can be romantic love, filial love, sisterly or brotherly love, or it could also be tough love, perhaps brutally tough love, in which case can it still be called love? I witnessed a thirteen year old boy, caught stealing, seated before an assembly of the entire community with his face in his hands and thoroughly shamed for over an hour under the aegis of tough love. I am not a developmental psychologist. It could very well have been the truly compassionate and corrective response. But it turned my stomach, and I strongly suspect it did not help the boy with his problem.

In like manner, unity can come to mean the suppresion of diversity. Honesty can mean, “to thine own self be true,” but not necessarily to anyone else, and a life of service can be a life of self-service.

There are forty year-round residents of Breitenbush, give or take, and we read the Credo aloud at the beginning of most of our meetings. As the Credo is intoned, heads nod sagely, lips smile benevolently and eyelids lower reverently. But what is rattling around in our forty-odd nodding skulls is anybody’s guess. I suspect there is an absolute minimum of forty-odd interpretations of the Credo. I revise mine daily.

Closely associated with the above assumption is assumption #2: Common values translate into common behavior. Hah! In a tiny community with clearly stated values and explicit provisions for abiding by them, we’ve still had problems with theft, infidelity, dishonesty, jealousy, greed. Your basic seven deadly sins.

Another close relation, assumption #3: Common interests result in common goals. Maybe. Maybe not. At Breitenbush we share the strong common interest of operating a wilderness retreat center. Yet some of us would like to see it run along more monastic lines. Others would like to see it become more secular. We have had heated debates over whether we should serve coffee, or about how family-oriented we should be. I have found that the most unifying endeavor still leaves plenty of room for contention, if the spirit is willing.

Which brings us to assumpton #4: The values we set forth attract a certain kind of person. Perhaps. One of the requirements of residency at Breitenbush is expressing alignment with the Credo, so in some sense we utilize it as a screen. But as I’ve already stated, the values expressed therein are extremely broad and subject to myriad interpretations. I am happy to see regions, socio-economic strata, and levels of education broadly represented at Breitenbush. I have been delighted to meet self-educated people who are remarkably well educated.

I am less happy to see that our community is predominantly white (“Whitenbush” as one black applicant said), predominantly middle-class, predominantly single people in their twenties and thirties.

I do not believe that Breitenbush has ever discriminated on the basis of race. Based on my thirty plus years experience in the backcountry, I would say that the wilderness experience, at least in America, is principally a white, middle-class experience. I think that Breitenbush is generally looking for easy-going personalities (which leaves me out), someone you can reason with (which lets me back in), or, if reason fails, someone who will excuse your behavior on the basis of the state of your childhood, chakras, aura, karma or natal chart. Which leaves me back out again. All things being relative, I think it’s safe to say that as a community, we are moderately diverse, which is to say, moderately homogenous, and I would add that how a person expresses alignment with our credo is probably more significant than the fact that they say they do.

One way in which we are extremely diverse is in the matter of personal style. Some of us have short hair while others have enough to stuff a mattress. Some of us are clad in L.L. Bean while others apparently pick through the Berkeley Goodwill bin. Some indulge in a variety of footwear while others wear Birkenstocks in any and all conditions. This is hardly revelatory, and so what anyway. But I mention it because it does have a significant impact on me. You see, there is also great diversity in levels of personal hygiene. I tend to hover near the Felix Unger end of the spectrum while others, under the guise of returning to the Earth, have simply returned to the dirt. That’s fine, so far as it goes, but I must confess that it is difficult for me to share facilities like kitchens and bathrooms with them.

It is a good lesson in tolerance for me, as I am in other ways a lesson in tolerance for them. I’ve given up trying to change such things (though it wasn’t easy and I can and do backslide). People have different standards, and in most cases I’ve found that trying to impose your own is not only arrogant but, more to the point, futile.

Which brings us at long last to the point, assumption #5, our final assumption and the piece de resistance: style imposed on substance will transform substance.

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