On the Value of Communal Living

Last night a freelance reporter came to Toad Lane to interview my housemates and I on our choice to “live intentionally”. Preparing for and participating in the interview forced my housemates and I to evaluate, to take stock of what intentional living means for us.  Being required to explain and justify our living situation was slightly nerve wracking, but the experience on the whole was clarifying and worthwhile.

So what is intentional living? For us at least, it means living with a collective intent, purpose, direction. But certainly we all have many intentions, couldn’t any group of people living together find some common intention which they share, and say they are living intentionally? The difference is people move to this house specifically out of a desire to participate in a group which shares this intention, and which makes this particular intention a theme of their everyday activity. For us, that intention happens to be living with a vegan diet.

The reasons for group intentional collected around three ideas – support, engagement, and fostering values in the larger community.

Mutual support: Any value, no matter how good, can individuating if it alienates you from others. Veganism is a good example of this – holding oneself to a vegan diet can prevent one from participating in community, from sharing food and recipies, from eating out together, etc.  However, living together with a group of people who all share the diet overcomes those obstacles and turns what was an individuating force into a communalizing one. We share food, informally at least, several times per week. This is a boon both to our health (eating a variety of foods is essential to a vegan diet), but also our social well-being – doing things together is good for the soul.

Engagement: While we all hold the value of critique and argumentative discourse, it is not always productive to have discussion after discussion in which you must defend your “position” against those who think veganism is “stupid”. Living with 6 other people who all choose or practice vegan diets for different reasons provides an atmosphere for arguments which, since everyone is coming from a somewhat similar situation, can be more productive and less antagonistic. It’s a mistake to think “the more you disagree, the more critical a discussion is” – there is nothing inherently more critical about an argument between a vegan and a non vegan, than between someone who eats vegan for environmental reasons, and another who does so for animal rights reasons. Simply because we share a diet does not mean we share a common motivation behind the diet – and engagement on those motivations produces a thoughtful ongoing house discussion.

Spreading: All political activists know that organizing is the key to success. In a sense, this house is an “organizing” – it’s a group of people getting together under one roof, to share and organize their ideas. One value (I think) we all share with respect to Veganism is that it is not enough for us to be Vegan – if we think cruelty to animals is so nasty, we have to think of ways to spread reduced-violence diets through the larger community. One way we do this is with our pot-lucks, which are a time every week we open our house to the larger community to share vegan food and ideas. You don’t need to be vegan to come to the pot luck, you don’t need to share any of our values. In fact, you don’t even need to bring food the first time you come. If we can encourage people to eat vegan more of the time, even if that isn’t all of the time, this is still an improvement – part of moving towards a moral consensus on paying attention to the implicit violence in our daily lives.

This year, the house is trying to reach out in a new way, and to a new community, with our semi-academic graduate student sponsored conference. Roughly our idea is to get communities to talk to each other in a slightly more organized fashion – for people to prepare presentations which we can then discuss, and the whole thing to run along a schedule. While we have not received any submissions yet, the deadline is still over a month away (January 15th), and we have received promises from many house members and common attendees from our pot lucks that they will come forward with presentations.

This has been a pretty thin, incomplete, and house-specific account of what intentional living means. If you want to read more, there is an excellent article on Z-Net on “Revolutionary Communalism” which discusses a more radical model for communal, intentional. That article reminds us that communal living is not about, in the end, structures or models – but how we choose to engage with each other:

“It is important, in communal arrangements, to literally set space and time aside for this, taking into account that the lives we lead might pull us in different directions. However, communalism only provides a framework for these types of relationships, and if that space is not filled with a will and desire to share emotions, mediate problems, be open and honest, cultivate good eyes with patience and understanding, trust the other, and both give and accept criticism, this space can quickly be converted to something unfortunately similar to an apartment shared with a heap of sloppy craigslist roommates.”

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