by Jerry Waxler
Frank Schaeffer grew up in a commune on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. His preacher parents intertwined traditional Biblical Christianity with passion for sculpture, music, and painting. The idea that God presents Himself through Beauty attracted leaders and youths from all over the world, eager to learn, to drink in the beauty of the setting, and to be together with each other.
The commune described by Schaeffer in his memoir “Crazy for God” became a hotbed of intellectual buzz, where people gathered to invent a Christian philosophy and lifestyle that would offer a hip alternative to secular humanism. I can picture them huddled around the fireplace, staying up late into the night to make sense of life. The name of the place was “L’Abri,” French for “The Shelter.” It sounds like a seeker’s paradise.
Reading memoirs is like sitting in an eye exam. Each book lets me try on a different lens through which, more often than not, my own life comes into sharper focus. The improved vision lasts long after the book is closed. In another essay, I wrote about the lessons I learned from Frank Schaeffer’s adult life, but his description of L’Abri kept nagging at me, because I too lived in a commune.
My lodging, not as picturesque as Schaeffer’s, was situated in the woods in Pennsylvania, and though our thinking was based on an Eastern philosophical foundation, our goals were remarkably alike. We were there to develop a thought system that would help us understand ourselves and our place in the world, and like the Schaeffer’s we were trying to link together the best of ancient wisdom with the power and excitement of modernity. In each other’s company, while we sought Truth, we also found friendship. And living together saved money, reducing the pressure on our material needs. I didn’t realize until much later that I was also receiving a crash course in the nuances of human interaction in groups.
While my group experience enriched me, it never occurred to me to write about it. Hippie and spiritual communes made most adults nervous back in those days, and the final blow to their reputation was delivered by the horrors of Charles Manson and Jim Jones. By the nineteen seventies, such a pall had spread over the notion of communal living it was no longer mentioned in polite society. The subject became taboo, and communes were relegated to the junk heap of the 60’s.
Looking back, I now see that negative attitudes about group living were inevitable in a society that worships individual enterprise. We grew up watching John Wayne conquering the west single-handedly, and most of us assume there’s something wrong with us if we can’t make it on our own. And anyway human beings are messy and hard to get along with. It’s easier to retreat into homes with only one or two other individuals.
The problem is, we’re social creatures, and if we lean too far towards individuality, we undermine the foundation of family, community, and country. This is, in fact, a danger near whose brink we seem to be teetering. According to the scholar Robert Putnam, our civic engagement has been on a downward slide for decades. In his book “Bowling Alone,” Putnam says we are neglecting the communities that sustain us. The lack of participation could be a recipe for disaster, especially considering that aging boomers are supposed to overwhelm our social systems.
So what will save us from this ominous prediction? Frank Schaeffer’s memoir reminds me that the solution may already be locked away in the memories of millions of boomers who at one time were an idealistic bunch, trying to find new ways to work together to solve the world’s problems. By resurrecting our former passion for groups, we may be able to solve Robert Putnam’s civic disintegration as well as the boomer drain on society.
Communal situations are not as far fetched as they might sound. Retirement communities as well as other types of shared living reduce loneliness at the same time that they reduce expenses. My mom lived in a high rise building until the end of her life. It was a community in a building, much more fun than a single-dwelling home. Mom routinely made friends in the elevator, the lobby, and the swimming pool. And living together reduces our impact on the environment. (See notes below for further reading)
And we don’t need to live together to solve social problems. All sorts of groups let us join forces. There are writing groups, education groups, support groups, and senior service groups. Volunteering may sound impractical, but community service can also open doorways to a new career. (To learn more on this potential, read this article.) And you can also gain valuable skills, perhaps the most important one being the skill of working in a group.
It’s ironic that communes have been stereotyped as anti-social. In fact, living together requires sophisticated social skills, and many of us have already learned these skills, while all of us could benefit by learning more. Getting along in groups may actually be the key to world peace.
Frank Schaeffer’s memoir, “Crazy for God” reminds me that it sometimes takes many years and much experimentation to learn how life really works. Those lessons are tucked away in memory. Memoirs help us learn from our history, learn from each other, and grow. Armed with our individual and collective experience, we can work together to change the world, one story at a time.
Have you lived in a dorm, had multiple roommates, a high rise, a closely knit row of homes, lived in a barracks, commune, or hostel? Describe situations when you lived with or near a collection of people. What was it like? Write a scene of exceptional harmony, and another one of tension.
Consider how the groups have helped you cope and thrive. When did you reach towards people? What were the frustrations? Why did you do it? How did you negotiate the complicated interactions?
When did you feel belittled, undermined, or unsupported by a group? Write about the experience. When did you feel helped, supported, encouraged by a group? Write about those experiences.
To read more lessons from Frank Schaeffer’s memoir “Crazy for God” click this link.
To read more about how volunteering can open a door towards a new career read this article.
Here’s another essay about how a memoir helped me understand some of my own thinking style more about myself.
For Further Reading about Contemporary Communes
http://www.ic.org/ Intentional Communities
http://www.cohousing.org/ Co-housing Association
“Cul De Sac” Communes featured on an NPR interview
New York Times Article about Elder Communes
Groups of people are as varied as human experience, from the monasteries and nunneries of the Catholic Church to Ben Franklin’s Juntas that were the foundation for American society, to Israeli Kibbutzim, a movement of agrarian collectives in the irrigated desert that were a pillar of Israeli society. Americans get together in volunteer fire companies, Kiwanis, Lion’s and Rotary Clubs, in their religious and spiritual groups, and the list goes on.
In the 1970’s, psychologists were riveted by group therapy, which was seen as the magic bullet that would cure all social and individual ills. In my course on group therapy, I was profoundly moved by the depth of therapeutic work that was accomplished in a few months of meeting with 12 other people. To learn everything there is to know about Group Therapy, read Irvin Yalom’s amazingly readable text Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy.
Another writer who helped me understand the psychological power of groups is Sandra Bloom, M.D. who developed a system of trauma treatment that involved the support of a group of therapists and peers. Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies by Sandra L. Bloom