Thursday, May 17, 2012

Communal Tragedies

We've all heard of the Tragedy of the Commons, where people don't take good care of common resources because they assume the responsibility for a shared resource is not also fully theirs (or because they don't have good systems for sharing responsibility, or because they only want the benefits and not the responsibility). But there are three other tragedies that are not as well known when people seek to live in intimate community.

The first is what I'll call the Tragedy of Artistic Freedom. People have different ways of expressing their creativity. The problem occurs when people assume that their way is "what needs to be done" and expect other people to have the same ideas about what they want to do. If I have a certain amount of time in which to express my creativity, then the work will expand to fill that time. I will do certain things that I may consider necessary, that someone else might think are silly, inefficient or arbitrary. If someone else is under my authority and they need to express themselves differently, then they will feel burdened and unfree. I have harnessed them to my plow instead of setting them free. I may think they are lazy, or unreliable.

The solution is to free people to contribute in ways that are most meaningful to them, while having a minimum of agreed upon tasks that everyone wants to happen. But when you do those tasks, I have to let you do them how you best see fit, not how I would like them to be done. Hopefully I can tell you how I think they should be done and have you be receptive to that, but I have to let go of my wanting to control you.

The second tragedy that makes people not want to live in community can be called the Tragedy of Unrealized Communion. Humans have a need to transcend their ego and merge into a higher collective, whether it be nature, a spiritual world of ideas, a mystical union with a beloved, union with other musicians, singers, game players, dancers, or simply people sharing a nurturing activity. Some come into a community looking for this experience only to find that the fear of others prevalent in the mainstream culture is also there in the community, and instead of mystical union there are monotonous meetings, drudgery and power-politics.

The solution is to give high priority to creating ego-transcending, communion-producing activities. In the US, the supposed land of individual freedom, most people only want to be around each other to have sex and/or when they are drunk. Communities where people enjoy each other have lots of activities, such as dancing, singing, playing music (not for show, but for communion), friendly, spirited discussion, study groups, workshops, and common work where banter and laughter abound. I suppose protest fills this role for communion for some.

The third tragedy may be called the Tradgeoff (attempted pun) Between Communion and Freedom. Groups have to figure out ways of ensuring smooth communication and operation, what sociologists call normative behaviour enforcement.  This can be done through carrots or sticks externally, and more effectively through internalizing beliefs and norms. I don't know if this Tradeoff is a law of sociology. I seem to remember that Ben Zablocki in The Joyful Community thought it was. A corollary might be that the free spirits leave after a while, and the control freaks stay in a community that lasts. I would like to believe that it is possible to have communion while respecting other people's needs, especially the need for autonomy/freedom, aloneness and communion with God, nature or other people. What would make this possible seems to have been articulated and lived by Jesus long ago and maybe others. It is not something that one could believe, but something that must come from each person's soul, in a holistic way. It is something that is rare, but I have seen glimpses of it in at least two intentional communities.