By Donella Meadows
–June 20, 1996–
A newspaper article the other day explained why the European Community is sure to fall apart. The Europeans, it said, are just too different from each other ever to get along.
To prove the point, the author repeated that hoary joke about heaven and hell. In heaven the police are British, the mechanics are German, the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian and the Swiss organize the place. In hell the police are German, the mechanics are French, the cooks are British, the lovers are Swiss and the Italians organize the place.
Well, that settles the matter. Europe is doomed.
Or is it blessed? Let’s assume for a minute that those national stereotypes have something to them. (In my experience they do — a little.) Would you want to live in a place where everyone is a great cook but a lousy mechanic? Or a place full of rigorous enforcers of law and order but bad lovers? Or would you prefer to have good mechanics, cooks, organizers and lovers all mixed together?
Maybe community is just what Europe needs. The more diversity, the more kinds of strength to draw on. Vive la difference!
What I’ve just done here is substitute one kind of oversimplicity (people who are different can’t get along) with its equally absurd opposite (people who are different naturally complement one another). On this side of the ocean, in a nation chock full of different kinds of people, we know things are more complex. Every day we both benefit and suffer enormously from our diversity.
Why is that? Why don’t we simply combine our various strengths and rejoice? If, as the joke says, we can use our differences to produce either heaven or hell, why do we so often produce hell?
That’s more than a theoretical question for me, because for 24 years I have shared my house and farm with a lot of different folks, maybe 70-80 altogether, though only 4-8 at a time. I hardly knew most of them before they moved in. When I tell people that, they’re usually horrified. They imagine hell. In fact the experience has been almost always peaceful and productive, though rarely heaven.
Now I’m forming a larger community, and I’m running up against both versions of oversimplicity. Anyone who considers joining can see the advantages of diversity. The city folks in the group are counting on someone else being the gardeners. We’ll need people who understand accounting, energy, construction. We surely need cooks and mechanics, musicians and artists, children and older folks, rich and poor, those who can work with their heads and their hands.
Those are our dreams of complementarity. Then there are our nightmares of incompatibility. What if someone is messy, when I like things neat? Loud when I want quiet? What if I have to live with someone, heaven forbid, who Doesn’t Think the Way I Do? The more I talk with people about community, the more I see how afraid we are of our differences. We seem to want everyone to be exactly like us except a better plumber and a little more willing to take the garbage out.
So are we stuck with our fears and our failures, or is there some way, on any level from a household to a continent, to learn to add up to make more than the sum of our parts?
I wish I knew. I do know that this question is central if our world or any small part of it is to flourish. So I try to practice community. Like anyone raised in individualistic America, I have to work at it.
I’ve come to believe that silent resentment is the worst enemy of community. So I have to learn to air my discomforts with other people, not as big deal, just as simple fact. I have to discuss problems when they crop up, work them out, find their lessons. It’s not the most natural thing for me to do.
I have to dig deep to understand my own intolerance, separate my moral principles from my prejudices and egotisms and be willing to stick up for the principles while letting go of the rest. That’s hard. I need the loving help of others to do it.
The physical rules of responsibility in a community are obvious. Clean up after yourself; put tools away; if you break it, you fix it. The psychological rules are similar. Clean up your misunderstandings. If you break someone’s trust, fix it. Those rules aren’t easy to follow, but it’s amazing how much better the world works, when people even try.
I suppose the real secret of community is the same as the real secret of marriage: commitment. Be in it for the long haul. Do everything in my power to make it work. The minute I start playing the “you’d better shape up, or I’m out of here” game, I’m undermining community, standing on the sidelines, feeling superior, not helping. Just look around and watch how many people in their families, workplaces, neighborhoods are playing that game.
So community is hard. Maybe Europe can’t hold together, nor our cities, our families, our nation. And yet most of us, surrounded by increasing material wealth and failing human relationships, spend our lives longing for community. Being responsible, managing our differences, being committed, that all seems like a huge burden, unless you think about the benefits as well the costs. And unless you consider the alternatives.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996