i think some people are good at living in community. they just get it. they do their share. socialize when appropriate. speak honestly about their needs. unfortunately, i am not one of those people.
but i keep trying.
.the best way to know god.
my trying began when i was in highschool, when living in community became a near obsession. my family life was so fractured–although we lived in one house, love seemed absent–that the idea of living with a community of people dedicated to loving one another in an almost holy, sacramental fashion, seemed like heaven.
as a young spiritual idealist, living in community was also the best way to know god. because, as i realized during a revelation at the age of fifteen, love, and love for others, is the essential ingredient for transformation. so, of course, living with people and experiencing that love must be the closest you can get to god, to nirvana.
i quickly discovered, however, that nirvana–at least in the traditional, mystical sense– is nothing close to life in community. most of the time, it’s challenging. and not just because some people leave toothpaste buggers in the sink–but because learning to know ourselves and others is scary. transformation requires sometimes painful destruction of our most comfortable selves.
during the summer between my junior and senior year of college, i decided to live in a dorothy day catholic worker house in duluth, minnesota. what started as a fairly wholesome, simple living situation, quickly morphed into a tense, toxic web of misunderstandings and estrangement. what instigated that switch, i’ll never really know. but it had something to do with confronting my neuroses through the judgement of intensely righteous and committed people. what i had formally assumed to be kind, well-intentioned behavior came across as privileged, artificial and somewhat irresponsible. i wanted so badly to learn how to cook, how to meditate, how to know and be known but i couldn’t stay still. i had a great deal of healing to do.
while i learned of my own failings over and over again that summer, i also learned of the great injustices of the world and became aware of an empire mindset of oppression and control that was destroying our planet. and i was being destroyed by it, as well. my inability to stay still was rooted in a very deep fear that i was not enough, that my worth was wrapped up in what i could accomplish. i was broken that summer, in community.
despite that somewhat traumatic experience, i kept trying. after college, i began living with a group of intentional, righteous young people in west philadelphia, with no tie to any particular religious group or spiritual tradition. it was exactly what i wanted. but–surprise surprise– i found myself confronting similar neuroses as i had witnessed years before. sometimes even the idea of even seeing people when i got home would cause me severe anxiety. there was so much emotion at the tip of my chest that i was terrified it would spill all over others, all over the floor, infect the very space i wanted so badly to emanate love. i would rather go into my room and fantasize about my problems or my joys. and i would certainly rather be alone than confront the awkward mystery of another. my own insecurities–which are varied and seemingly bottomless–kept me at arm’s length from most people. so living in community was hard.
but bit by bit, every time i put myself out there, i felt stronger. more powerful. community had given me an opportunity to grow, even if i failed. people had given me an opportunity to feel forgiven for my failings. i broke the juicer. and the blender. i’m terrible with appliances. but i had an opportunity to reconcile the situation, to take responsibility for myself and learn that i am a power stronger than i could have ever imagined.
many people are convinced that they are just too much–they have too many problems, too many quirks, too many inconsistencies–to live with others. living in community, you have endless opportunities to recognize that you are perfectly fine.
whatever unbearable sadness you think you’re holding can be held by others. and the magic part is that when you expose your fears, concerns, problems, they actually clear up. it’s like a wound–it will only heal once it is exposed.
when we live together we remember our unconditional connection to one another and the strength that it affords. living in community allows me to harness at least some of this power to transform myself while giving me confidence to change the world.
Madeline still lives in West Philadelphia with five wonderful housemates. This winter she’s been dancing more, and writing, too. In the spring, when new life returns, she’ll be developing an online multi-media project that documents “Movement for a New Society,” an experiment in radical community and social change that took place in West Philadelphia during the 70s and early 80s.
You can check out what she’s done so far here: www.thisishowwelivetogether.com.