What About Intentional Communities?

This article appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine's September/October 2018 issue, in Paul Sutherland's Heart of Money column.

Q: Have you ever experienced an intentional community that works?

A: I lived in what would be considered an intentional community from age 18 to 25. About 85 people lived together on 365 acres of rural farmland with the mission of living a sustainable spiritual life that revolved around educating children, mostly children of the community members. We were young, and many people came and went over those years. During my seven years there, many members got married, had their first children, and shared the emotional storms typical of 20- to 30-year-olds: leaving parents, graduating, and failing in relationships. We felt raw from the shit going on in the world—Vietnam, inflation, unemployment, racism, environmental apathy—and we realized that drugs, sex, alcohol, and such did little to fill the pain and emptiness inside. So we learned to meditate, to pray, and to sing.

The community lost steam and the acres were sold after the married founder was caught in an affair with a younger community member, who was also married with young children. My roommate and I were among the last to leave. Shortly after we disbanded, for comfort I read The Different Drum, a book about communities by M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled), who pointed out that communities are not a place but a group of people. I took that to mean that our community should not end just because we lost our place, but I wondered if that proved true now that we had.

About 20 years later, a fellow community member remarried and invited many of us to the wedding—and I realized we were in fact a community. Maybe not for all of us, but for most, coming back together felt as if no time had passed in terms of our care, love, and acceptance of each other. Of course, we had some wrinkles—divorces, new kids—and some had kids out of college and even with real jobs. What struck me then, and I still believe today, is that any one of the first 40 community members who came to mind would do what was in their power to help if I asked for a favor—even though I may not have chatted with them in 30 years. I believe this community still accepts me as I am. So I think those seven years worked for me.

I think the community worked because of a few key things:

  • We were selective and ruthless about who we let in.

  • We prohibited drugs and alcohol on the acres.

  • We expected members to keep commitments—or get out!

One time, a tall, lanky, handy guy named “Walkin” walked into the community. He fit right in and was good at fixing things, so we gave him the rotating job of making breakfast for the 80 community members before the Saturday community work event. We all had different jobs during the week, but on Saturday we came together to do a “work/project” together on the farm. Sometimes it was just fun, like a snowball fight. Other times it might be collecting maple syrup. Whatever it was that Saturday, Walkin didn’t show up to cook, so we all worked together to get the breakfast out. Then Walkin walked in around 8:00 and said, “Ya know, man, I was having the best dream, just the best dream, so I stayed in bed for the dream.” Walkin was walked out the next day.

In our lives, we create our own communities—communities often based on connection, trust, dependability, and happiness. The cool thing about communities is that we can choose whom we want to hang with or depend on. I have found there is a rawness to life when you choose to accept your fellow travelers. I want my fellow community members to be happy people who accept even “tragedies” with grace and without drama. Relationships work for me with semi-well- adjusted, resilient people who don’t melt down with “Oh, woe is me” or curl up in the fetal position because someone dies, divorces, doesn’t call us back, gets elected, or finds out they have cancer or are growing old. We accept our warts, our life experiences, and those of our friends.

So, in my opinion, we all have communities. I think it is logical to take responsibility for whom we let in to our community and to be intentional about it. I don’t think geography is part of the equation. I travel like crazy, and my community members are as far away as Norway, Maui, Kampala, and Belfountain, South Africa.

M. Scott Peck wrote that communities work when they let members come and go, without judgment. I agree. We shouldn’t look at those who leave as failures, whether they were asked to leave or left on their own. We can just allow anyone who is self-absorbed or annoyingly hyperfocused on the new guy in Washington to drive away from our community.

If you’re looking for a geographic community, my suggestion would be to visit some of them. Live as a guest for a month, or 12, and see if you feel that you’re flourishing, useful, and happy. If you are not blooming, allow yourself to move along. You might feel like a rolling stone after a while, and your friends might say, “A rolling stone gathers no moss!” But tell them, “The stone gets polished.”

-- Paul H. Sutherland

Meggen PetersenComment