The danger of having high ideals is that you can become vicious to the people who don’t live up to them (or vicious to yourself, if you don’t manage to live up to them.) I think it’s important to practice forgiveness and love towards human weakness (including your own weakness.) Otherwise, living with high ambitions, dreams, and goals can become unbearable.
One of my most important ideals is living cooperatively. I got the idea when I studied ecovillages in college, and since graduating I’ve lived in four different housing cooperatives- one established cooperative and three aspiring cooperatives. What are housing cooperatives? They are houses where roommates share food & chores, work on projects together, and generally try and act more like a family and less like strangers who happen to be living together.
I think what everyone craves most deeply in their lives is a happy family, whether that “family” is composed of blood relationships or friends who feel like family. Despite this being the American ideal, very few Americans achieve it. 50% of marriages end in divorce, and even when the couple manages to stay together, they often manage to create an unhappy household. If two people bound by sex and law can fail at creating a happy family, just imagine how much harder it is for the housing cooperative, where many more people are bound by far looser ties.
The first housing cooperative I lived at was the most established one- Ant Hill Cooperative in Rochester, NY. I know very little of the founders other than a cartoon they left on the Ant Hill website, where one of them is saying, “You know what’s better than hot spiced beer? Housing cooperatives!” and the other is replying, “Yeah! Let’s start a cooperative!” However, despite this light-hearted, mellow attitude, their work on the cooperative was both thorough and impressive. They left behind house rules and structures, and a strong sense of community, which contributed to one of the happiest living environments I’d ever experienced.
Not everyone at Ant Hill was totally happy, though. A meat eater felt attacked by judgmental vegetarians. A tidy, scholarly young lady struggled unsuccessfully to make the house a cleaner and more hygienic place. A green activist took on the thankless job of managing house finances and got overwhelmed. A bike shop worker got fed up with people bickering, threatened to leave, then changed his mind and stayed. Dating drama created an uncomfortable rift between two housemates. But I loved everyone, absolutely loved them, with one exception: ALEX. Alex didn’t pay rent, stole our furniture when he left, and justified it on the grounds that he was an “anarchist.” He was the ultimate freeloader taking advantage of our kind and generous natures.
But I liked the drama and chaos of all this human life taking place around me. So many good things happened to me. I got to hold my roommate Mary’s new-born baby in my arms. I marched in a Gay Pride Parade with my roommate Drew (for the first time in my life) and felt my heart fill with joy. Brent would share his bottles of wine with us and sing in his beautiful mellow opera-trained voice. Gabby lifted me up with her zest for life. Kat was full of kind wisdom at the end of a hard day, and she made better desserts than anyone. We had a pet turtle and Jen would lift it up in her hands and whisper sweet nothings to it, which cracked me up.
Most people just don’t want to deal with shared living because it’s too much work, too much lack of control. In the end, it’s always easier to shut yourself up in your room and listen to Simon & Garfunkel’s song, “I have no need for friendship / friendship causes pain / it’s loving and it’s laughter I disdain / I am a rock / I am an island.” That’s how I spent the first part of my life. Books were my friends, not people, because books would never upset or betray me. Many people who are drawn to housing cooperatives, and who love phrases like “Intentional community,” are previous victims of social trauma, isolation, or disability. Going through a community-worshipping phase of life is a natural backlash to previous misanthropy.
After I left Rochester NY for job reasons, I joined a co-op in Arlington, MA being run by my warm, generous, and beautiful college friend Brittany Rode. Her community ideals were very strong, but she struggled with getting the rest of the house to take her vision to heart. I wish I’d done more to support her, but I was overwhelmed with an intense job that left little energy for anything else. My boyfriend (now fiance) Ben and I ended up starting another shared house in Waltham, MA. Ben tried to be the charismatic leader of that house and eventually got burned out from accepting too much personal responsibility and stress from other people’s drama.
When I moved to San Francisco, I couldn’t find a housing cooperative to join, so I started my own, Crane House. Unlike my previous two struggling co-ops, every member was equally committed to the cooperative lifestyle and achieving a shared vision. Yet, despite that shared commitment, things progressed slowly. Working out house agreements and creating house projects turned out to be hella work. In Ant Hill, I’d had the benefit of all of that already being in place. I hadn’t realized how much work it is to build a house government from scratch. I started to wonder if the original founders of Ant Hill had left, because they were burned out from all the work it took to achieve their dream. (And then they left their dream behind for others to enjoy.)
Lately, my housemates have been frustrated by how long it’s taking to achieve their dreams of a perfect living situation. Why can’t we work out the right system for shared food costs? Why can’t we properly organize house outings? Why are things so messy? Where can I find something better? Etc, etc. Ironically enough, I see exactly the same tensions taking place on a regional level and a national level.
On a regional level, the train conductors for Bay Area Rapid Transit have been repeatedly striking. Having a public transit system is a form of cooperative living, investing in shared resources that support the common good. Everyone agrees we need transit, but nobody can agree on the implementation, so we end up doing without over and over again.
On the national level, we have the government shutdown. Because the Republicans don’t agree with what the Democrats want, they’ve decided to just give up on governing. It’s as if our nation’s leaders said, “I don’t like you and I don’t agree with you, so I’m not going to do ANY chores!”
It’s as if the entire world, all of humanity, occasionally feels tempted to do what I did in my childhood. They feel tempted to go into their room, lock the door, and give up on dealing with other human beings. “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me; /I am shielded in my armor, / Hiding in my room, safe within my womb. / I touch no one and no one touches me,” wrote Simon and Garfunkel. But being social animals, our very survival comes from our fellow human beings.
Independence is a myth. (Check out my employer’s book, The Self-Made Myth.) I am not independent. I rely on my fiancé’s hugs, my roommate Pete’s big goofy smile, my coworker who drops into my office to see how I’m doing. I have chickens because my roommate Sandor built the coop, I have a fast & easy ride to work because the governments of the Bay Area decided to cooperate and build something big. I look at the glittering lights of the Bay Bridge, which nobody could have built alone, and I feel that sense of spiritual comfort & wonder that comes from knowing human being can work together to achieve something visionary. When we get our heads pointed in the same direction, we build enormous bridges and we fly to the moon.
I don’t think it’s high ideals that power human success, though. I think we accomplish great things solely out of willingness to keep working and keep forgiving when things break down. Love helps. A sense of humor helps. I keep thinking of the poem the president of my company gave me when I started working at Berrett-Koehler: If, by Rudyard Kipling.
Someone once asked me, “What would be different in your life, if every day you tried to do the maximum amount of good possible?” The answer is, I don’t know. I don’t have the courage to try.