Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

By Paxus Calta-Star

I co-moderate a large diverse facebook group on intentional communities.  Recently someone posted:

Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.

While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.

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What is gossip?  It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room.  “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him.  It is just an opinion.  “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.

“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it?  Is it gossip if the target is the source?

 

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They did what?

Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.

Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community.  One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?”  This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.

 

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Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.

Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy.  Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community.  Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice.  “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?”  or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”

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In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems.  [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.]  You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it.  Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.

In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream.  If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger.  If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you.  If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem.  Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently.  Gossip in community has more obligation to it.

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It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture.  In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them.  This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together.  And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.

It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently.  Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate.  When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members.  And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.

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Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

Dream Alliance

by Paxus Calta

One way to think about community is as an antidote to the problems of contemporary society. A strong case can be made that deep sharing mitigates most climate disruption contributors. We see that highly intentional community helps heal some people’s mental health challenges. But the real allure of community is something larger.

If we look at living together and sharing our lives as a long lever for creating culture, then isn’t it possible to design a community in which the members become well harmonized and deeply mutually supportive? Community asks the question “How might we come up with a way to live together in which amazing, healing and transformative things are accessible to the people who live this way? How could we develop a set of rituals and communication patterns which helps members of these communities manifest their dreams? And if this is possible, what do we know about these types of successful cultures already so we can experiment with them?”

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One of the things we know for sure is we cannot be supportive without being communicative. And the more we can trust, the more we can share what we find to be true, the more profound our ability to advise and ally with people.

Cambia is reviewing how we dream and vision. The community is small and reforming and old traditions are being reconsidered by new members as well as founders with new eyes. For me, the piece of greatest interest is the exploration and manifestation of personal dreams. I believe this is a rich place for meme craft and hopefully deep personal satisfaction.

We are tinkering with the parameters of a dream alliance. The basic idea is simple, I tell you my dream and invite you to support it and then we switch roles. If you don’t have a dream, or it feels incompletely formulated (“i want more music in my life”) then your ally will guide you through an exploration to help refine and define it more.

If your dream is ambitious (“we need to deconstruct industrial capitalism”), your dream ally might help you identify the next piece (“let’s start a worker coop”). If your dream is sprawling (“i want to get people to think!”), then perhaps your ally makes you look on a focused part (“let’s start an inspiring book club”).

But more important than suggestions from your ally is a willingness to help manifest. “I would cook and drive for a local Food Not Bombs chapter, if that was your calling” or “You need to stop Trump, I will go door to door with you before the next election”. Or perhaps simple logistics “I’ll watch your kid while you meditate/exercise.”

I was excited about this thinking and I brought this rough idea to the Thursday night book club at Cambia. We are reading Charles Eisenstein’s “The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible”, one chapter each week and talking about it. And after my enthusiastic description of dream alliances, Craig was uninspired. “I am not excited about exploring people’s individualistic dreams, what would make this interesting to me is if we were seeking and building our shared dream.”

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This is consistent with Eisenstein’s thinking. That we need to move past dualism and find a new story which connects everything. Craig gets this, which is why he has been pushing this book and the concept of InterBeing. InterBeing, as close as I can tell, is a sort of secular enlightenment, where you feel and react from a place of being connected with everything and seeking some type of harmony with it all.

I don’t get it. I am a dualist. This is slightly challenging to the book group I think. Perhaps it is a bit like having a libertarian in your anarchist discussion groups. You are all talking about getting rid of government, but with little agreement when it comes to what happens next.

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And even though I don’t quite get it around Interbeing, Craig’s challenge feels like a friendly amendment. There is something very powerful about seeking our shared dream together. The alliance is richer when it is our dream instead of you supporting mine in exchange for me supporting yours.

And I am again grateful for Cambia which thinks these are the questions we should be pondering and energy well spent exploring and cultures worthy of our efforts to design them. I think a carefully constructed dream alliance could be super memetic. And that is my personal holy grail.

Dream Alliance

The Throw Away Society

The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.

A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.

When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.

Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.

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In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?

The Throw Away Society

Communal Gratitude

Yes, it’s Thanksgiving week in the US, and while Thanksgiving is a very problematic holiday (where we give thanks for the land we stole from the native people and the prosperity we built on the backs of slaves), there is something very important about the act of giving thanks.

At Twin Oaks (and other communities) the highpoint of the Thanksgiving meal is going around the very crowded room and having each person say one thing that they are thankful for. One community I’ve been to starts every meeting with a time for appreciations.

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Thanksgiving at Twin Oaks

Being grateful, thankful, appreciative is a very useful community building exercise. Just as there are vicious (destructive) circles, this is an exercise that builds upon itself. I’ve pointed out things that don’t work in community–this is something that does. Many long running communities do something like this and it makes the commune a more pleasant place to live. This attracts people and contributes to the longevity of the community.

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We’ve had several posts here on what doesn’t work in community. Gratitude is something that does.

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Communal Gratitude

Communal Conflict

If you are looking for a nice peaceful life in a commune, forget it. I often tell people starting communities, that conflict is not a question of if, but of when.

This isn’t a design flaw of communities. Basically, whenever you have two or more people doing something together, at some point, there’s going to be conflict. This is because no two people are identical and no two people see things the same way. Add more people and there are more chances for conflict.

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And the important thing to realize is that conflict isn’t bad. In fact, working it through is a good way to reach a better solution than simply accepting what one person says. This is why consensus is more powerful than voting. In voting, the minority is overpowered. In consensus, you need to listen to everyone and try to learn from each side.

And I say all this as someone who is a chronic conflict avoider. Believe me, I am scared of conflict. But I’m even more scared of not dealing with conflict. Not dealing with conflict is one of the things that destroyed a community that I loved.

After it was all over, one of the folks I had been in community with asked me if I hadn’t been aware of all the conflict going on. I replied that I knew it was happening, I just didn’t know what to do about it. So I basically ignored it.

I still don’t know what to do with conflict, but I’ve learned a few things. The first is to actually say, “Hey, there’s conflict happening. We should deal with this.” It doesn’t go away by pretending it isn’t happening–in fact that generally makes it worse.

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Listening generally does help. If you can, don’t take sides. Assume there are good reasons for all positions and try to figure out what each person needs.

And sometimes a mediator helps–someone who is outside the situation and sometimes someone who is outside the community.

A few other things about conflict. What I’ve found is that the bigger the community, the less intense conflicts are. It seems counter intuitive until you realize that with a couple, for example, each of them will try to meet all their needs from the other person. The more people there are, the more points of view, the more different people who can meet folks needs, the bigger the buffer, the more likely there will be folks who can hear all sides.

And, for the last couple of years, I’ve been living in a community that embraces conflict. It’s been amazing to see people who will be screaming at each other in a meeting (this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens enough) and later be working together. These folks have lived like this for years.

And this leads to looking at one other thing about conflict. The goal isn’t to eliminate it, the goal is to make it safe to deal with. And something that makes it safe is commitment. If you know that you can disagree with folks, get upset with folks, even occasionally yell at folks, and they are not going to run away or never speak with you again, then it makes conflict more possible and therefore more manageable.

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So the commitments we have help us weather the conflicts and the conflicts make us stronger. If you want a commune that can last, learn to deal with conflict.

 

Communal Conflict

The Common Unity Project–Community Building Retreat

By Timber

Recently 13 members and prospective members of The Common Unity Project attended a weekend workshop titled “Heart to Heart Communication” created by an extraordinarily wise and highly intuitive community building workshop facilitator RoseMarie Pierce. RoseMarie’s innate ability to gently guide people inward to the route of their problems is confounding.  She has over 20 years of experience sharing these workshops which use the framework based on the principles identified by Dr. M. Scott Peck in his books: A Different Drum and The Road Less traveled.

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Members at TCUP originally sought out to find a solution to what we felt was a lack of communication process. We value living in community as a way to enrich our individual experience. We want to learn how to live authentically with one another; to build deeper, interdependent relationships; to heal past wounds and break free of our own egoic patterns.  Yet without a communication process and a common understanding of conscious communication we found that we were struggling to implement these ideals and bring them into our everyday being.

“True community is not simply an aggregate of people…but a people which have made a commitment to communicate more authentically, more intimately, more vulnerably.” — M. Scott Peck

The weekend workshop turned out to be a profound experience for everyone. The basic premise of Heart to Heart communication is that everyone has their own unique perspective in how we see the world, and how we see the world is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves within it. Our external likes, dislikes, judgements, blame etc, are all projections of our own individual experience. When we start to understand this we can learn to speak truthfully, taking responsibility for our feelings rather than trying to change or blame others.

The weekend began in complete silence. Slowly whenever someone felt comfortable they would begin to share themselves with the group. Layers began to shed. Feelings that have been withheld for some time were expressed. At times what one person said would trigger feelings in someone else. We learnt to acknowledge these feelings without identifying with them. What is this feeling?…  Where is it coming from?… What do I make it mean?…. Is it true?…

The workshop agenda was with no direction or goal. We were simply asked to “speak our truth at all personal cost.” We the participants took the wheel, it was a spontaneous journey that took us in all directions and gave everyone an opportunity to share their deepest selves. Past traumas, childhood secrets and withheld truths came up and new levels of understanding and connection were reached.

The workshop ended like it began… in complete silence. I felt a comfortable calmness in my body. Like I had let out everything that was keeping me distant from others and revealed my true self, I had nothing left to hide. I looked around the room and I saw everyone with new eyes, I felt no judgment being given or being received. I felt unconditional love and complete trust for everyone at that moment.

After the course we have had much time to reflect, there seems to be a general sense of empowerment from this new way of interaction. More and more we are taking responsibility for our perception of a situation, and our language we now use is starting more and more to represent that. We have continued weekly Heart to Heart circles without a facilitator and more layers are being revealed. There is still struggle, pain, emotions and there always will  be. We now have the tools to express and work through these feelings and because we are sharing them with each other, everyone benefits.

The Common Unity Project

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc.Pharm, is a holistic pharmacist with more than 40 years experience in both conventional and natural medicine. Currently, she counsels and lectures on holistic health and mind/body vitality, as well as offering group workshops in community-building. She has decided she would like to dedicate herself fully to facilitating Heart to Heart Workshops and she is eager to offer these workshops to more intentional communities in the future. You can find more about her @ http://www.holistic-pharmacist.com

 

The Common Unity Project–Community Building Retreat

Love of the Small

by Maximus

This video comes out of an ongoing conversation we are having at Cambia about minimalism and functionalism. The two ideas are not necessarily opposites, although sometimes a minimalist ethos can prevent things from being as functional as they could otherwise be. But is function always necessary? How much skill, and sophistication, and access to resources do we really need to live a good life? Perhaps, if we focus too much on function, we miss opportunities to connect with each other.

But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we build our community according to minimalist or functionalist principles. Either would be fine. What matters is that we take the time to really listen to each other, and develop robust empathy for each other’s values. That’s what community is all about.

Love of the Small