A Farewell to Palms

A year ago I left Seattle to live in an intentional community on an island in the Pacific. I’ve had roommates for most of my adult life, but this was the real deal: over a hundred people living together, an hour away from the nearest real city, surrounded by jungle and ocean with internet speed that could only be described as excruciating. We had each other, though, and our common values. 


The Fellowship for Intentional Communities defines “intentional community” as ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, student cooperatives, urban housing cooperatives, intentional living, alternative communities, cooperative living, and other spaces enabling people to collaborate with a shared vision.


To those of us who flock to the unusual world of communal living, it fulfills a long-awaited dream of experiencing something we have only known in fleeting moments. We know the feeling of living life fully, though we’ve usually felt it just a week at a time while taking a break from the rat race: one-week vacation, one-week Burning Man, one-week yoga retreat, one-week meditation retreat, one-week dance or music festival. For many of us, we’ve saved our most expressive, truest, freest selves for “that one week of the year.” So it’s understandable that we want a way to “get away” for real -- to spend an extended time away, fully immersing ourselves in those rare experiences.


I know this because, in this community, one of my privileges and responsibilities was to interview people who applied to join it. In the majority of these conversations, I repeatedly heard people say that they wanted to be surrounded by others who shared their beliefs and values and who enjoy the same activities they do. Due to its remote location and expressed purpose, it was a highly self-selecting group. Most people don’t just trip on the sidewalk and fall into the woods, suddenly living with a bunch of yoga-posing, om-chanting, quinoa-eating, nature-loving hippies. These things don’t happen by accident.


Sometimes applicants would say that they hoped to feel like part of a tribe. Their yearning was palpable, and is perhaps, universal. The community represents an ideal: being a part of something that supports one’s highest vision for themselves and the world. In its intentionality, it is a space and experience that reinforces the individual’s beliefs of its members, usually without fail. And there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing. It is understandable, reasonable, desirable. But for me, after nine months of living inside my echo chamber, something surprising happened.


Without realizing that “echo chamber” is the formal term for what I was experiencing, I observed that indeed, I was living within a Twilight Zone that echoed the majority of the community members’ viewpoints back to them, and back to me, over and over and over again.


The realization snuck up on me slowly, with a series of small, uncomfortable noticings.


I noticed I was having the same type of conversation repeatedly.

I noticed others were having the same type of conversation repeatedly.

I noticed the community was becoming more and more homogenous: physically, mentally, spiritually, politically, financially, aesthetically, socially.

I noticed many in the community like the same things, do the same things, want the same things, and complain about the same things.

It would be beautiful if it wasn’t kinda spooky.

These noticings were not unique to me. Community members commonly referred to our life there as being “inside the bubble.” For a lot of people, inside the bubble is the best place to be, and they never want to leave. But for me, not so much.


No matter how much you like what’s being said, no matter how much you love the people saying it, one thing will happen with too much repetition: just like listening to your favorite song so many times that you can’t stand it anymore, your feelings about it will change. Similarly, when everything happens according to the same weekly schedule, according to prearranged agreements, according to recurring menus and strict mealtimes, and according to supported assumptions, life starts to feel less, well, lifelike. It’s like eating nothing but coconut ice cream every day; it’s sweet and delicious, but it doesn’t provide all the vitamins and minerals the body needs to survive. At a time when the internet makes the diversity and depth of world and its peoples more accessible than ever before, I found it luxuriously limiting to live in a bubble with such homogeneity of mindset, opinion, activity, political belief and stylistic leaning.

Once I realized what was happening around me, “difference” in any form became endlessly appealing, just for variety’s sake. I began to crave diversity and difference in almost every possible way. I wanted to rebel, just for the sake of bucking all this beautifully manifested conformity. I wanted choice. For example, the kitchen crew (of which I was not a part) decided every meal and mealtime for almost a year, so I never got to choose what I ate. In my rebellion, I started skipping meals, or just eating an apple with peanut butter or a bag of chips in my room instead of going to the communal meal. These weren’t easier or healthier choices, but doing it gave me options and variety, and some semblance of independence -- things I was craving, needing, wanting.

The majority of my time in an intentional community was beautiful and positive in so many ways. But it was also kind of like living in a manicured garden or monoculture, when what I really craved was the Amazon rainforest. I set my sights on moving back to the concrete jungle, departing from my echo chamber just ten days ago. I never intended to leave so soon; I expected to stay several more months, but a sudden offer in the big city beckoned to me and I jumped at it. I was ready.


I know that coming “back to society,” will mean being annoyed, pissed off, perplexed and irritated by the opinions and behaviors of people with whom I don’t see eye-to-eye. But I also know that it holds the juicy possibility of being surprised, probably even pleasantly surprised by unscheduled, unexpected things I can’t see coming. Being met with positive surprises is one of the things that gives my life meaning and a real sense of magic. And I missed it. Life was safe and lovely in the bubble, but it’s far too predictable. Echo chambers give a remarkably comfortable sense of safety, but I found that safety blanket to also be a bit numbing. I’ve learned that I’d rather feast on life as an unpredictable smorgasbord than all-you-can-eat coconut ice cream.


I learned a lot about myself, others, community and communication from the experience. I made some incredible friends that I’ll have for a lifetime, and I learned a ton about how I want to live my life in the future. I appreciate the acceptance and encouragement that I received from being a part of such a validating, generous, beautiful, supportive, encouraging intentional community. It’s easy to live when you’re surrounded by people who reflect your highest ideals, behaviors and values back to you. I needed those things, but I also need more than that.

In order to fully feel like I am growing and developing as a person, I really need to be exposed to new and different ways of thinking and being. I’m the kind of person who grows the most when pushed and challenged. Crucibles aren’t pleasant, but they’re effective. I want to learn and transform through my exposure to things that I don’t fully understand and can’t predict. I want people to say unexpected things that puzzle and delight me. I’m addicted to learning, and that happens best for me in environments where I hear and see things that I know little-to-nothing about. I also want more diversity. For most of the last year, I was the only black person I saw; I tired of feeling like the only one pushing for more diversity in our community. We humans have 250,000 years of evolutionary diversification under our belts, and I want to experience more of it, in every way. I welcome the challenge of an intelligent debate with someone who disagrees with me; both of our synapses get a workout by going through mental sparring. It’s fun.

Adapting to, negotiating, and integrating difference gives a richness to life and human connections. It deepens perspective and delivers subtlety, spontaneity, choice and contrast. My echo chamber gave me friendship, palm trees, and coconut ice cream, but it didn’t make my life feel more lifelike. Only differences can give me that.