Visions of Utopia

In class Tuesday we screened bits and pieces of the documentary Visions of Utopia: Experiments in Sustainable Culture. The film discusses the history of intentional communities and gives brief overviews of several types that exist today. The communities we looked at ranged from a school for handicapped children to an full-on commune where everything was held in common.

It was really interesting to see the different ways people go about seeking community, and it was especially nice to see these living styles alive in the United States, where the typical style of living is pretty much the opposite of these examples. The viewing also spawned an interesting class discussion about how we live and why. We had a good range of opinions on what we thought about it, and I’ll try to give mine without rambling, because this topic touches so many aspects of our lives.

One of the groups that seemed to cause the most reaction was the Twin Lakes group. They share everything, including income, and receive the same amount of money from the groups every month to spend on themselves. I wasn’t totally clear on the inner workings of this, but I can definitely see why someone would not want to live that way. I wouldn’t (or, at least, I’m not there yet). The model that was most appealing to me was the co-housing model, where you have your own space but live in a tightly-knit group of buildings, sharing what you can share and having meals together. This is appealing to me, largely because I’ve already lived like this. Granted, it was more impromptu and way less structured, but it was still intentional, and it was one of the best times in my life.

A group of friends had almost rented out every unit in University Apartments on Spring Street. We had one whole side of the complex (save a long-suffering old lady, bless her soul) and a few on the other side. Looking back, one of the most important design aspects of the apartment that encouraged community was the shared balcony. There was no way you could walk outside without running into someone. Several of the guys later moved into Glen Hollow, which is more townhome-style, and the porch was the one thing they missed the most. It made us hang out and talk to each other. I have reservations about how much design can actually do to create community, but I have no doubts about its ability to create spaces in which community is likely to happen.

We didn’t share everything, but what could be shared generally was. I had a lot of tools, and they were always being borrowed by someone for something. We shared internet connections, guitars, food. One of the most important was the sharing of knowledge. One guy sucked with computers, so he knew to come get me to help him. I didn’t know anything about screenprinting, but one of the guys was into it and showed me how. We improved each others lives and broadened each others’ worldviews by living the way we did.

That experience taught me this: no matter what sort of conflict arose, it could be dealt with, and the resolution was always quicker and better for both parties. I see it now, with the same group of friends, how conflict or issues go way longer before being dealt with, or are only partially resolved. It is absolutely the result of being apart, of only having the shallow community of phone calls and emails. When you’re living in community you don’t have the chance to filter yourself, to only allow in the open what you want people to see or to avoid the deeper issue. The richness of the friendships we created in that arrangement trumped any problems we may have had with each other. That richness is the greater gain, always. Though it never did with us, there can definitely be situations where two people just cannot get along. But that doesn’t mean the idea of living in community is flawed; it means those two people are.

We are social creatures. We’re wired to have tribes, wired to live in groups. And in groups there is always conflict. People are flawed. We break everything we touch. This will never end - no group will one day hit perfection and live in total harmony. That’s a ridiculous standard. So to use potential conflict as a reason to avoid community is a weak argument from the get-go.

But that’s what we do. We have structured our whole society around separating ourselves from other people. We think we have community, through school or church or whatever, but really we only socialize when we feel like it. We only expose ourselves through a filter of our own choosing, trying to control what other people see. And the impacts of this are far-reaching. We have a total inability to get anything done as a society because we insulate ourselves from ideas that contradict what we think, and we refuse to understand the other side of the argument. Instead of resolving our conflict, we retreat back to our rooms and read books and blogs that tell us all the reasons why that other person is wrong. We’ve come to the point where we’re just yelling past each other while society burns to the ground. And I think our lack of living in true community is a direct result of that.

Some questioned the exclusivity of these groups, wondering whether they were really any different from the exclusivity of the typical suburban family. I would say absolutely not. It’s night and day. The difference? Sure, that community in and of itself may be somewhat exclusive, but everyone living in there knows what it’s like to live with others. They know from their experience that people are people, and they will have a greater empathy for others. They have dealt with complex conflicts and wounded relationships. They take that experience with them wherever they go, and it changes how they see the world.

There are so many other aspects of this worth addressing, but this is pretty long as it is. If you read all this, thanks. It’s therapeutic for me to write this out, because I’m basically talking to myself. I know I don’t live like this now, but having the experience I had makes me know what I want to strive for in the future. Now to sleep. I’ll write more about this later.

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