Creating Community in a Hyperindividualized Society

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 17, 2009 — 15 Comments

Note: This is a guest essay by author, artist, and harried graduate student Lupa, who is helping out with content while Jason’s doing his cross-country move.

In the United States, we have achieved what is possibly the most hyperindividualized culture in the history of our species. Some of the effects of this have benefited people, particularly minorities of various sorts who, while still facing oppression, are able to find more footholds for asserting their unique identities amid the masses. However, we’ve taken the archetype of the Rugged Individualist to such an extent that most of us no longer really know how to function as a cohesive community. More and more of us no longer live in the same state, let alone city or neighborhood, as our extended or even nuclear families. The average American moves over a dozen times in their lifetime.

Culturally, we feel rootless as well. Dissatisfied with mainstream (generally white) American culture, more people, neopagans included, are seeking connection with other cultures as a substitute for strip malls, reality television, and the aggressive competition associated with hyperindividualism. Unfortunately, this often results in varying degrees of cultural appropriation, in which an individual draws whatever isolated elements of a culture’s practices they prefer, while ignoring the context provided by what they’ve left behind.

I can personally speak only from an American perspective. However, while we’re not in a situation where “As goes the United States, so goes the world”, neopaganism has developed largely in individual-based Western cultures, and neopagan religions retain that influence to some degree, even when practiced in more communal settings.

I’ve run into countless pagans who want to form “tribes”, “families”, or other sorts of communities. Some may want to create intentional communities on land that no one yet owns; others just want some connection in their city or region. Many are inspired by the Temporary Autonomous Zones created in the context of pagan festivals, and wish they could extend that permanently. Unfortunately, community doesn’t just happen overnight. Nor can it be forced or even necessarily planned neatly. It’s an organic thing that happens at its own pace. Wanting to have a community doesn’t automatically confer the social and practical skills necessary to make it happen.

We aren’t used to being part of a community because our culture has slid so far into individualism. We’re used to being in groups of people, we’re used to making friends and other relationships, but we have a tendency to isolate ourselves outside of our preferred social circles. Many Americans today, pagan and otherwise, couldn’t tell you who most of the people who live on their street are—something that was very different even a couple of generations ago. Some of the pie-in-the-sky plans for intentional communities I’ve heard cooked up over the years have included “pagan communes”, self-sufficient and detached from “Christian America”.

Community requires interdependence with a variety of people, not just the ones we like. Yes, often communities are formed out of reaction to a lack of safe space due to being a minority of some sort. However, what keeps us from being able to create that safe space in the form of pagan-centric community is the intense focus on the self. We can see this in the common sabotage of attempts to create covens and other small groups, as well as other organization efforts. One or more people, miffed that the project isn’t going their way, will instead turn their actions towards destroying it out of spite—putting their own needs over that of the group as a whole. Personal disagreements take precedence over the greater goal. It’s not just isolation from non-pagans that is problematic—it’s the fact that we’ve been conditioned to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others to an unhealthy degree, even to the point of damaging one-on-one relationships.

These one-on-one relationships are the building-blocks of community, which also requires starting small. Relationships have to be established and built up over time if the people involved are going to survive the stressors of being in close proximity on a long-term basis. The most naïve daydreams I’ve seen often include a bunch of people who have little, if any, connection with each other, other than perhaps being friends with the ringleader(s). If your biggest concern is making sure that your needs get met, and you aren’t all that invested in the needs of most of the other people in your “community”, are you really going to be willing to temporarily set aside your needs in order to listen to everyone else’s as a way of facilitating group communication?

Conversely, “community” doesn’t always have to include every single member of the community all the time. Some of the strongest moments of a community are when one person with a problem simply knows that they can go to another person and get a solution. An example is the practice of borrowing a cup of sugar; we’ve so lost track of interconnectedness that very few of us feel we have an option in that instance beyond going out to the store, or doing without. While one’s pagan community may be scattered far enough apart across an area that borrowing that sugar may be difficult, there are other small but significant interactions that can still happen.

And it’s these small interactions involving trust and communication that are the building blocks for making community happen on a larger scale. I’ve been privileged enough to be able to go to festivals at permanent pagan sites, and observe the interactions among long-term residents, volunteers, and other staff. They get to be human beings, with errors and problems, but there’s a cohesion that’s impressive to behold. It took a lot of time, and weathering a lot of challenges to temper those relationships. But it can happen.

Admittedly I can only speak so much in practice at this point. I don’t live in an intentional community, and much of my time is taken up with personal pursuits (the Master’s Degree That Ate My Life being a primary one). However, that Master’s degree will be in counseling psychology, from a program with an emphasis on community involvement—not just taking on the clients who are most like me. And in my personal life, I’m attempting to make the first steps in creating an environment in which community can hopefully develop; last month, for example, my husband Taylor and I hosted a pot luck and swap meet in our home where people not only shared food but excess resources. Granted, our collection of “resources” looked more like the fodder for a yard sale, but it was a start. And while I’m not yet the greatest gardener in the world, I’ve planted some extra onion sets in anticipation of a barter with a friend of mine who raises quail. It just so happens that a large portion of my social circle happens to be pagan—but my goal isn’t necessarily a specifically pagan community.

That’s where I’m at right now, and I’m fine with that. I have a lot of individualistic tendencies to move past, and I have a lot of practical and relational skills I need to develop. But I can also learn from those who have made community—whether pagan or otherwise—so successful, and I can put those lessons into practice. And that’s what I’d suggest to those who want to build community: learn from those who have made it happen. There’s work to be done, but it can be done—it is being done.

Jason Pitzl-Waters