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Intentional Community, Part 4

(Intentional Community . . . )

If I understand cognitive dissonance theory correctly, it essentially states that if a person engages in a behavior that is inconsistent with his attitude, he will experience cognitive dissonance, a form of psychological distress. To relieve the distress, most people will alter their attitude. In other words, behavior dictates attitude, although I think most of us like to think that it’s the other way around. And I think that that is how most intentional communities proceed. We’ll all adopt an attitude, the right attitude—love, unity, etc.—and this will result in the right behavior. I believe it is adherence to this cherished myth which results in a veneer of alternativism belying the underlying microcosmic reality. For toilet training will out. Our basic personality, our modus operandi, is usually formed while we’re still in the single digits. Our strategems for getting what we want have been devised, tested and confirmed. We may incorporate modifications later, but they tend to be only variations on the central theme.

At Breitenbush, some staff houses are two or four bedroom affairs with bathrooms and kitchens. Others are tiny spartan cabins with heat and electricity and little else. Go to a housing meeting when one of the nicer houses is on the block. Watch love and unity dropped like bad habits. Hear them hit the floor with a thud. When resources are limited, humans (all animals for that matter) historically compete for them. Competition for limited resources. In a word: war. Yet battlefield tactics may vary greatly in subtlety and efficacy, and I must now say that the most inane non-arguments I have ever heard, I have heard at our housing meetings. Bar none.

For instance, needing your own private kitchen so that you will eat better and be healthier. Walking the twenty feet to the community kitchen just won’t cut it. Hey, my health is at stake here. How can you deny me the house that is the key to my health? Now there have been people with legitimate health concerns which of course were taken seriously and could appropriately result in preferential treatment, but that you’re going to suddenly switch from Lucky Charms to tofu because you have your own kitchen is pushing credibility. I mean really putting your back into it. It would be so refreshing to hear someone say, “I want that house. I really want it a lot. I want space and creature comforts. I am more interested in my own comfort than in anyone else’s and I’m not ashamed to admit it.” Now that would be alternative. That would be revolutionary.

The Breitenbush Credo is almost exclusively sunshine. The single veiled reference to the possible existence of shadow is, “correcting what is clearly not working for the community or for us as individuals.” This, however, is preceded by “directing our energies to the positive.” Again, I see this as a style over substance error. The negative exists for a reason, and not just to be negated. It is truly wonderful to see at Breitenbush the many broad smiles, the warm greetings, the genuine regard and affection that people have for and freely express to one another. But human nature is more complex than that.

Healthy humans get angry from time to time, and there is no place for anger at Breitenbush. When anger is expressed, no one really knows what to do about it. And this makes us incomplete, as individuals and as a community. Anger and anguish have the same etymological root. An angry person is a person in pain. We should be able to do something for someone suffering thus. We like to think of anger, fear, and hatred as alien to us, tumors to be removed. But they are part of us, part of our passion for life, and sources of great energy. These so-called “negative” emotions need to be integrated, not ignored. They need to be exposed to the light, not swept under the rug. Only then can they be transcended. Only then can we be whole. In its insistance on resolutely focusing on the positive, Breitenbush is genuinely alternative. And it’s a shame.

Now that I’ve ripped my community up one side and down the other, what constructive purpose may be derived from all this noise? I’m sure some readers are asking, “Why does this guy choose to live in an intentional community, anyway?” Well I’ll tell you. Yes, I have concluded that the intentional, conspicuously alternative segment of our program tends to stay around skin deep. And when it does sink in, it can be counterproductive. We periodically engage in what are called community-building or community renewal activities. I sometimes think of these things as “institutionalized intimacy.” We will all do the exercise, and afterward we will all be intimate with one another. Not this guy. Not the way I define intimacy. It just doesn’t happen that way for me, or that fast.

It’s taking the right approach: address the behavior, and the attitude may follow and become self-perpetuating. But we’re talking about creating a culture, remaking a society. And that takes time. Generations. After twenty years, Breitenbush is still in the embryonic stage of experimentation and mutation. I don’t know what the period of gestation is for a society, but, to my mind, we are still clearly in the first trimester. The high turnover rate at Breitenbush probably is prolonging the early phase of development. In the meantime, we will continue to be a hybrid of basic American culture with some slightly modified social institutions.

These modifications, however, have not been entirely unsuccessful. Perhaps the most significant feature of Breitenbush is that we all work and live together. You can’t be on your best behavior at work and then go home and drop the facade. You have a social relationship with all of your coworkers, and this makes social relations paramount. As I said at the beginning of this polemic, when I first came to Breitenbush, I was told in no uncertain terms that my ebullient extemporizations left a lot to be desired. How fortunate for me that these people, who had not known me that long, cared enough about me and about their community to consistently and unflinchingly provide me with such feedback. If they hadn’t, I might never have realized what a colossal asshole I am; that checking your impulses, adapting to your environment, is not repression, but discretion.

As for the microcosmic aspects of the Community, I have found great value in being in a position to apprehend the microcosm. I have learned that when people do nasty, icky, hateful things, it is far more often out of fear, weakness or confusion than out of malice or spite. I can respond to such things with compassion and generosity, at least some of the time. And being generous with others, I can be more generous with myself, and realize that in the grand scheme of things I am really only a relatively minor asshole after all.

Tim McDevitt is an aspiring writer (failing miserably so far) who lives at Breitenbush Hot Springs where he coordinates security, first aid, search & rescue and other emergency services. A former martial arts instructor and alpine guide, he is happiest when running for his life from one of his sparring partners, or shivering in his bivy bag on the side of a mountain reading Thoreau’s “Maine Woods” with a headlamp and a box of fig newtons.

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