How did you make intentional community work for you?
January 16, 2013 2:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm living in an intentional community similar to the ones described in this link. It is way harder than I expected. Can you tell me how you made a similar year work for you?

I am half-way through my volunteer/service year, and it is not at all what I expected. I feel constantly stressed out and all of my stress/panic reactions are in full swing what feels like ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, but especially when dealing with my fellow community members*.

I gave up a decent-ish but not wonderful job to come here and left behind my elderly grandmother, who I was living with and is the light of my life. I felt like this would be a good enough personal and professional opportunity to make the move, but now I feel like I gave up my nice life to be unhappy all the time and get nothing in return. I would really like to quit and go the hell home and forget this ever happened.

But! Apparently EVERYONE wants to quit at some point, or so all the intentional community literature tells me. And apparently most people DON'T quit and afterwards feel that the year was valuable. So if you lived in intentional community and struggled with it but were ultimately happy with your experience, how did that change for you? What resources are there for when you are totally burned out but have to keep going? Are there books I'm not reading? Songs I'm not singing? Something?

*Definitely relevant: I really don't do well in groups.
posted by Snarl Furillo to Human Relations (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Someone who I used to be close to was in a religious service-based intentional community (just like the linked one) and had a pretty terrible time with it; they did end up leaving part-way through (facing creepily cult-like pushback in the process, though the religion involved was totally mainstream) and seemed much happier as a result.
posted by threeants at 2:20 PM on January 16, 2013

I think you might need to evaluate WHAT it is that's making you batshit. Frankly I find loud chewing to be a reason not to live with others. I have a very low tolerance for annoyance.

Is it the place? Is it gross, in a scary neighborhood, have a bad vibe, haunted?

Is it the people? Don't bathe, don't shave, are vegan, are culty?

Is it the stuff you're doing? Pointless, hard, heartbreaking, wasteful?

If you can isolate what it is specifically, then you can address it.

I can't imagine being the one liberal in a house of tea partiers, for example. At some point, I'd snap. You might just be mis-matched with the folks, and it's hard to live in a community if you don't like and respect the people.

Sometimes, you like the folks, and it's just one yutz who's bringing you down. If that's the case, acknowledge it and reach out to other, normal people who might be able to laugh you out of your snit.

Give yourself permission to leave. Decide that you're going to do it. Plan packing up your gear and kissing the experience goodbye. Does this bring a smile to your face, do you brighten up inside? Are you thining about giving your Bubbe a big kiss when you see her, and nothing else? Then, perhaps that's what you need to be doing.

If, while you're packing in your imaginatino, you're rather wistful about something. "Oh, but I'm going to miss...." Or if you feel like you're leaving people in the lurch and you feel bad about it, it might be that you're not as done as you think you are.

I've got no magic words, I'm a very 'cut your losses' kind of person, I weigh the pros and cons and my decisions are pretty easy. But if you are well and truly unhappy, then say good bye and go back home.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:29 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

It may not be that intentional communities are not for you; it may well be that this intentional community is not for you. As with any relationship.
posted by dhartung at 2:32 PM on January 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

And apparently most people DON'T quit and afterwards feel that the year was valuable.

There is a very strong selection bias here. If someone drops out because they found the micro local community to be toxic, or they weren't a good fit for it, that non-success story doesn't get repeated. And you don't know, as an outsider, if the place you're enlisting in will be good or bad for you.

Consider getting a generic job and tithing 10% of your time, energy, and finances, rather than 90%. The former may be sustainable in the long run where the latter is not.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:53 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Apparently EVERYONE wants to quit at some point, or so all the intentional community literature tells me. And apparently most people DON'T quit and afterwards feel that the year was valuable. This is a very well know psychological phenomenon called justification of effort. Justification of effort is common to military boot camp, gang initiation and fraternal organization hazing. So when someone tells you it was so worth it - take it with a huge grain of salt.
posted by Brent Parker at 2:56 PM on January 16, 2013 [12 favorites]

What resources are there for when you are totally burned out but have to keep going? Are there books I'm not reading? Songs I'm not singing?

Alternatively, there may be work-life balance issue here. Folk who work 9-5 sometimes get to go home and decompress for an entire weekend. And they can leave the work at work. And that's how they keep going.*

But if you're not getting those two days away from the politics, and away from the people ...

*This includes workers at women's shelters, or the person who keeps the local soup kitchen going.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:56 PM on January 16, 2013

Response by poster: -I attribute most of my stress to my fellow community members, but that's probably not entirely fair to them. They are perfectly nice- like, they don't play loud music at 3 AM or pee in the kitchen sink. They are all at least a few years younger than me (so in their early 20s rather than my quasi-late-ish 20s) and I feel that difference in age very strongly.

I don't work with any of them, so I don't bring the office home with me, but it is really super-stressful for me to be around people all the time. I didn't quite realize what a change for me that would be.

I've definitely "cut my losses" in different situations in the past (ask me about my six-year journey through three different colleges!) and I suppose I feel like I pull the trigger on that too early or too easily and want some perspective on soldiering through.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:29 PM on January 16, 2013

Look: it is absolutely fine to quit things. Especially if you have a backup plan and will not be screwing yourself over by quitting.

For what it's worth, I've lived in a few intentional communities, and have noticed that ones bound together by a particular ideological/political practice can be especially difficult because if you dislike the community (for whatever reason: they're jerks, messy, you just don't click, have different styles of living or communicating--whatever), it can feel like you're repudiating/failing at the overarching ideology that brought you to the community in the first place. Even when that's not the case at all, or when it's much more complex than that. (Every lived ideology is far more flawed than every theoretical one, and I think those flaws/contradictions are most apparent in your twenties, when you're just learning about compromise.) I saw this struggle really illuminated by a white friend who lived in a food justice-oriented community project made up mostly of queer women of color. The community project/living space was really a bad fit for her, for lots of ordinary living-with-people-is-hard & living-with-project-collaborators-is-extra-hard reasons, but it took her literally a year longer to leave than I'm sure it would have if she hadn't subconsciously felt that disliking this particular QPOC project meant she was, like, a terrible white ally or implicitly racist or something. I've also lived in collective houses with politically-overzealous vegans and whatnot, and with Baptist & Mennonite missionaries-to-be studying small-scale ag development work. I love the theory of living collectively, but in practice it requires a fine balance of being very easygoing yet really on top of things.

Anyway, I'm not saying this is what's going on in your case, but I do think that it bears mentioning that the stresses of activism and service work come with an extra dose of ideological stress!
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:54 PM on January 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh hey, looking at your profile it appears that we're erstwhile neighbors! I'm across the country right now, but we live literally less than a mile apart when I'm in my normal life. If you end up sticking it out, get in touch if you'd like some tips for things to do in the East Bay.
posted by tapir-whorf at 3:57 PM on January 16, 2013

Well, there is something to be said for persevering and overcoming a bad situation. That sort of experience builds your inner strength and ultimately helps you develop that elusive quality we call "character". Look at the Marines (for one example) or an order of nuns or monks for another example in a different context. Individuals in those sorts of groups learn how to put the needs of the group and the requirements for being in the group above their own needs for individuality and creature comforts. Not everyone can hang, but those that do definitely rise above discomfort and discouragement.

At the same time, not every situation can be overcome by sheer force of will. My brother-in-law is highly allergic to shellfish. Sadly, he also loves shellfish. Unfortunately, his love shellfish can't overcome the anaphylactic shock he experiences when he eats even small quantities of the stuff. Even with the best of intentions he's going to have a shitty, potentially lethal experience. Trying to tough it out, in fact, only makes it worse.

Sometimes, the lessons we learn are not the lessons we think we are going to learn when we sign up for the class. It sounds like you've learned a fair amount about yourself. They may not be the answers you wanted, but it does sound like they were the truth. I think your questions boils down to, "Will I learn a different lesson if I stick this out for another six months, or will I just continue to confirm what I've already learned?"

FWIW, I spent part of a summer in an intentional community when I was in college. By the end of the second day I knew it was not for me, and I was miserable. I decided not to leave early and stuck it out to the end, and for me, that was not a great decision and one I still have regrets about almost 30 years later. Looking back on that situation, I feel that leaving would have shown more character strength than staying. YMMV, but that's something else to consider.
posted by mosk at 5:54 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

SO agree with tapir-whorf that it's absolutely fine to quit things.

And I keep thinking of your elderly grandmother, the "light of your life." For heaven's sake, she's elderly, you love each other, you were happy living with her -- she's not going to be here forever. One of the ways I decide what to do is to imagine future regret. If you stick out the whole year, go back, and she passes the next day (god forbid)... such regret.

There's many, many times you need to figure things out with your head. Go with your heart this time. I think you won't regret it.
posted by kestralwing at 7:34 PM on January 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

My experience with such things was brief and decidedly mixed, but it's made an interesting story over the years. I regret not staying longer, except that leaving was instrumental in everything good that happened to me for the next rest-of-life. So uh.

This comment feels useless. Practical: can you get a separate room to retreat to?
posted by ead at 9:26 PM on January 16, 2013

Yeah, I think you are lucky to have that relationship with your grandmother. Six more months (if you were to stay in your program) is probably a big chunk of whatever time you guys do have left to enjoy each other.

You thought that this experience would give more back to you than it's taking out. Sounds like it's not working out that way, and it is taking away time with your grandma, which is definitely finite. This factor isn't part of the typical recent college grad's calculus, so feel free to consider yourself an exception to whatever rule about people deciding it was worth it in the end.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:28 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

What did you hope to get from the experience when you started? What were those reasons that made it seem like a great opportunity? Will staying help you achieve those goals, or is the environment so counter-productive that its interfering with them? There is a lot to be said for sticking with things, definitely, but there's also no shame in knowing when to find a way to learn or serve that is more in line with your skills and talents.
posted by MsMolly at 5:28 AM on January 17, 2013

Mosk: Looking back on that situation, I feel that leaving would have shown more character strength than staying.

Also this! Might not be true in your case (since you mention six years of college-hopping), but so true in cases where going against expectations (yours and others) can feel paralyzingly frightening.
posted by tapir-whorf at 2:24 AM on January 18, 2013

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