The following post was co-written by Mike Huber and Hilary Burgin.
While each Fellow’s experience is uniquely their own, QVS staff have learned to anticipate some general patterns in the course of a QVS Year. One pattern that we have been thinking about recently is how, at the start of a new QVS year, we anticipate Fellows relying on politeness in order to help them navigate their new communities.
Politeness tends to be a way of avoiding conflict, often stemming from a place of caution. It’s a useful tool in many social situations. It’s also very familiar; we’ve been taught to develop these skills since kindergarten. Yet there’s a limit to what politeness can accomplish. Two people can be unfailingly polite to one another for many years and still not be in community with each other.
By January, across our five program cities, all the Fellows are living with less daylight. Winter weather tends to keep everyone indoors. In a typical QVS Year, this would be the season in which politeness finally loses its luster. Housemates tend to find themselves at a crossroads: either they delve deeper into authentic community by learning how to engage in productive conversations and transformative conflict, or they start coping with the stress of 5-7 housemates by drifting toward something like benign mutual neglect.
As a group loses faith in the brittle panacea of politeness, community life tends to become more tumultuous and sometimes even painful. People start to realize that they want different things from the community. They have different capacities for engaging in the conversations that will build momentum toward something new and deeper. While the standards of politeness are a cultural constant, the work of building community is very specific to the people involved:
How do we create a space that works for all of us in our amazing and blessed particularity?
In the arc of this year, we also see Fellows stretch beyond the stage of politeness. This includes: appreciating difference, rather than ignoring or ‘putting up with’ it; speaking directly with a housemate about a problem in real time; building one-on-one relationships with individual housemates instead of relying on the group; making one another elaborate birthday breakfasts or desserts, creating impromptu dance parties, meeting housemates’ family and friends; and all of the mundane and comforting everyday moments. But, one has to trust that on the other side of conflict is something worthwhile.
Impact of COVID-19 on Community Living
With QVS Fellows following strict social distancing guidelines due to COVID, we’ve noticed that the typical community-building cycle has been accelerated this year. Coffee shops and libraries are closed; there’s no place to go in the evening to experience some physical distance from Housemates. And since many of the Fellows are working remotely from home, even the workday necessitates rubbing elbows with one’s Housemates. All of this forced togetherness accelerates the realization that being polite isn’t forging a real community.
We anticipate that QVS Fellows will come to this unsettled place at some point in their time together. This past year, because of COVID, Fellows are arriving at this unsettled place ahead of schedule. This means that QVS staff are introducing tools and resources earlier, such as this article about community-building by M. Scott Peck, a variety of conflict transformation tools (nonviolent communication, Radical Collaboration — take your pick!), and allocating more time during early QVS Days to engage deeply.
QVS is learning that reaching this stage earlier (and offering these tools earlier) provides extra time for creativity and depth in the work of community building. Fellows have a choice to stretch into their ‘challenge zone,’ and grow a deeper connection with their house community.
Last year, in the closing months of the 2019-2020 fellowship year, we saw Fellows demonstrate resilience and creativity, building community despite the challenges of a pandemic. Many were driven to engage in mutual aid efforts in their cities, strategize creative social distancing alternatives to their regular routines, and hone their spiritual practices. They navigated shared home and remote work lives, cared for those experiencing direct harm and violence from increased xenophobia and racism, and leaned into systems — like house worship and business meetings — they had cultivated in the previous months of the program.
We’re excited to witness the ways that the current cohort is learning, growing, and showing resilience.
Queries for Continued Discussion
- How do you discern which relationships are deeper than politeness in your life?
- How has COVID affected your own experience of community?
- How does the cycle of community building described above show up in communities you are a part of?
- What tools do you use to build community in your life?
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What a resonate post. As an alum and someone continuing to live an intentional community, benign mutual neglect is a reality and challenge of living with others, especially right now. For me, it’s powerful to have the challenge named honestly and openly. Thank you for this post, it really helped me ground what I’ve been feeling lately.