25

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Community Building

 

The Road Less Traveled was one of those rare gifts that have inspired millions of people. It had a profound impact on me and as I read it, I felt a strong desire to meet the author. Little did I know that a few years later, I would be telling the above story at Peck’s 60th birthday party and presenting him with a framed copy of the chicken-picture, as a token of my appreciation.

I first met Peck after reading The Different Drum; Community-Making and Peace. In that book, he attempts to distill the psychological and communicative elements that have allowed encounter groups to reach a collective, psychosensory state he calls “community.” When a speaking tour brought him to Chicago, I got to talk with Peck about this.

I asked him whether positing community as a process-induced, group sensation didn’t reduce it to a peak experience, as opposed to something that might be sustained and integrated into normal life. He invited me to follow up with him on the issue, and in a subsequent letter, I confessed I’d had my fill of such collective peak moments. “Of what value are these weekend workshops,” I challenged, “if none of us is willing or capable of achieving what you call ‘community’ in our ongoing contexts? And should we not be suspicious when our communicative zeal expresses itself not in the personal conundra of everyday life, but in contrived encounters with people we don’t know and with whom we have no future?”

Peck wrote back and invited me to attend a workshop sponsored by his Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE). So much for having had my fill of collective peak moments. I soon found myself seated in a circle of about 25 five people, in Knoxville, Tennessee.

From The Different Drum, I had a rough idea what was in store. In the first stage of community-building, the participants display the kind of sociable, performance-behavior I’ve described in Chapter 11. (Everyone acts as if they are already in the desired community state.) Peck calls this phase of the process “Pseudocommunity.”

In stage two (“Chaos”), the phoniness begins to break down. Somebody becomes impatient or otherwise confrontational, and things turn ugly.

By stage three, the participants start owning up to the fact that they really have no idea what “community” is or how to snap themselves into it. Peck calls this “Emptying.” Someone finds the courage to test the waters of personal vulnerability, to communicate without pretense or manipulative agenda. And this, like a drop of water on a parched plant, somehow allows everyone else in the group to lower their own defenses.

The final stage, “Community,” is that rare state of affinity or heightened group sensitivity that makes it safe for the participants to stop performing for and judging one another. It is a collective gestalt in which each person’s unique presence, rather than his ideas or personality, is truly felt and unconditionally accepted.

Thus apprised of the community-building sequence, I came to the FCE weekend determined not to play the stage-two provocateur. But I was unable to restrain myself when a woman named Cindy, a veteran of previous FCE events, began describing the lengths to which she had gone, over her husband’s protest, to get to this workshop. Confessing her need now to obtain the community fix she had purchased at so dear a price, she implored us to get on with the process, to move beyond the insincere banter of Pseudocommunity in which we were mired. “We have only three more hours,” she somberly intoned, “to make it … into real community.

“I DON’T GIVE A SHIT IF WE EVER GET TO SO-CALLED ‘COMMUNITY’!” I heard myself erupting. “If you haven’t achieved it in all the time you’ve had with your own husband, what good is this fleeting and artificial state you want us to induce here at his further expense?”

So much for “Pseudocommunity.” Cindy came back at me with both barrels blazing: “YOU SON OF A BITCH!” she screamed. “WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”

She continued to rail against me for several minutes without let up. But I felt no need to defend myself. My experience in Tanya and Sherman’s community informed me, irrefutably, that this diatribe belonged not to me but to Cindy’s husband.

To be sure, my own issues had overwhelmed my intention not to play the instigator at this event. But I had played it in a conscious if emotionally charged way. In point of fact, I had accelerated the process just as Cindy had requested (confirming the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it!”).

And as Peck had predicted, our conflagration seemed to work some catharsis for the entire group. For just as soon as Cindy’s outrage had dissipated, we were quite done with the “Chaos” phase and moved directly into “Emptying.”

The doorway was gently opened by Jan, who began describing her own marital dilemma. She was an FCE facilitator (though not officiating at this event) whose husband was chronically depressed. Jan feared he was slipping away from her and that the two would not survive much longer as a couple.

But unlike the thrust and parry going on between Cindy and me, Jan’s statement was vulnerable and non-accusatory. She was neither judging her husband nor masking her own distress. Nor was she looking to the group to solve her problem or, for that matter, even to respond. Indeed, it was the very unconditionality of Jan’s sharing that was about to spark us into “Community.”

One of the group’s two leaders now asked permission to step out of his role as facilitator and address an issue of his own. Apropos of my point to Cindy (and earlier, to Peck), he described his frustration at being unable to sustain “Community,” not just in his everyday life, but even at these FCE events. He felt he was falling short of his calling, failing himself and those he was supposed to be serving.

This confession triggered a profuse response from an unlikely source. There was a salesman in the group, whose earlier pitch for “team spirit” (when we were stuck in Pseudocommunity) had fallen rather flat. (“Our group needs a name,” he had gushed, “like ‘the Peaches’. . . or ‘the Magnolias!’”)

But the salesman’s new proffer was poignant and deft. He described his own routine, driving from town to town, persuading strangers to buy things they didn’t want. He was starved for some honest to God communication. And so very grateful for the last 15 minutes of it!

At this, the facilitator burst into tears; but the salesman kept right on facilitating. “However short you may have fallen, you’ve done me a great service. I never knew straight talk like this was even possible.”

The facilitator now began to wail in accompaniment. A duet, not an accompaniment; two souls expressing their common anguish. Experiencing the human dilemma, perhaps from different vantage points, but feeling it, sharing it. And allowing us all to share it, first through their eyes, then through our own.

My sensation at that point was one of exquisite connectedness – isn’t that what “community” ultimately means? – with every member of the group; and of some unaccustomed open space between my throat and my navel, as if my very guts were hanging out. As I stood up to leave the closing ceremony for the airport, Peck, who was not known for public displays of affection, rushed over and hugged me.

Back at the office a few days later, I tried to summarize what I had learned that weekend:

1.“Building community,” as Peck calls it, means opening up our respective heart chakras. That chakra seems to respond sympathetically when someone else’s heart stirs in close proximity. If the opening is permitted to continue, the group process accelerates as our own sympathetic vibration now sets off the next person’s vibratory network.

2. The risk of this opening is that it exposes us to pain we’ve been preferring not to feel. As the pupil of the eye constricts to protect us from too much or too sudden an onslaught of light, so the heart chakra constricts in the face of our emotional pain. That’s the gist of our defense mechanisms. (Only in this case, it’s the “darkness” that constricts and the “light” that dilates.)

3. Nevertheless, as a pupil fixed in the wide-open position would more likely blind us than enhance our vision, so the heart chakra must accomodate to ever-changing interpersonal conditions. The task is to attune ourselves, ever more finely, to the amount and quality of the available (interactive) light. And that is what we should mean when we speak of "setting appropriate boundaries."

NOTE TO READERS

        The author's correspondence with Dr. Peck about "Community Building" is accesible via a separate tab on the Navigation Bar.