Conflict or Pseudocommunity

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Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) is an eleven-month service program for people aged 21-30 who are ready to enter into an experiment in community centered on Quaker values. Fellows have full-time social justice employment and participate in an intentional program of spiritual deepening. We are in our eighth year and have houses in Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Portland OR, and Minneapolis. I served as a Fellow in Boston in 2016-2017, and since then, I have been on staff as the Recruitment Coordinator and am engaged in equity work.

QVS Fellows come from all over the country and many other parts of the world. They come from all classes, races, and cultural backgrounds. They hold various gender and sexual identities. Many live with disabilities. They were raised with diverse practices around conflict, religion, and how to use a dishwasher. Way Opens for them to begin sharing a home with five-to-seven young strangers in a Quaker Voluntary Service house, embarking on a journey of self-discovery that explores the ideas of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equity, and stewardship as ideas to center a life around. Fellows often begin the program right out of college, making QVS the first time many of them are living on their own.

Volunteering a year of one’s life to work in a social justice organization (often difficult work), while also embarking upon a collective, spiritual healing journey with other Fellows – developing new ways to relate to Spirit, community, and self – can be an uncomfortable experience. One practice we use in QVS to help Fellows navigate this discomfort is the “comfort-challenge-chaos spectrum.” There are some activities and experiences that are “comfortable,” others that “challenge” us, and some that throw us into a state of “chaos.” We invite Fellows to spend as much time as they can in the challenge zone, which is a place of deep growth – trying new things, getting things wrong, getting things right, feeling discomfort, and much more!

One thing that is especially challenging about “the challenge zone” is that it tends to require us to deconstruct many of the ways we have been socialized to relate to each other. We might have always assumed that everyone looks at something a certain way. But even though this sounds laughably obvious, the hardest lesson to learn is this:
We are different from each other. Every individual’s upbringing is a unique cultural experience. We each have basic desires and basic fears that do not necessarily align with one another. If the light of God lives in everyone, then getting close to people is a way to better understand both the Divine and ourselves.

The experiment is exciting but not easy. We are clumsy at first. We take up too much space or don’t draw our boundaries well enough. Many of our young Fellows have never really learned to set boundaries at all. “Challenge zone” often gets confused with “chaos zone.” We forget our mug that was filled with peppermint ice cream behind the couch for weeks (but our housemates don’t forget!) and we don’t ask enough questions about the needs of housemates who are not morning people (Is my morning glee startling?). We are living with people who grew up with a lot more privilege than us and the skills we learned growing up thrifting and stretching a dollar become superpowers. We are living with people who grew up with less privilege than us, and are understanding how abundant simplicity can be. We are learning the differences between a want, a need, and what we deserve. We are learning how to ask for help and what community support can really look like.

Quaker Voluntary Service believes that community exists in the relationships that each housemate has with every other housemate individually. There is a way in which “a community” exists at the center . . . but really, the individual relationships are what make a community. Each one-on-one relationship impacts every other relationship and therefore, impacts the whole. When harm has been experienced by one set of people in the house, everyone experiences an impact.

We invite Fellows to think about conflict as an opportunity to get into deeper relationship, to develop an understanding about why some phrasing or behavior does not sit well with another. I recently facilitated a session in which Fellows explored their experiences with conflict growing up and their desires for managing conflict in the house, and I noticed them expressing anticipatory anxiety about conflicts yet to come. In response to this, my co-worker Claire Hannapel asked, “Why don’t we approach conflict with a similar energy that we approach joy with, or the other parts of a relationship?” I think that conflict indicates a new chapter is about to open up in a relationship, and people are generally afraid of change.  When we ignore the issues we have with someone, it may be because we fear the relationship is not capable of surviving conflict.

We do not hope that the QVS communities will be free of conflict. We want to build communities that are equipped to handle conflict when it comes. We want our Fellows to learn to see conflicts as opportunities for growth. We want them to understand conflict as a part of the process, rather than a flaw. A community without conflict doesn’t give its members the opportunity for transformation. I believe in transformation as a spiritual practice.

When I was a Fellow, we read an essay on the “stages of community” by M. Scott Peck, and it dramatically shifted my assessment of relationships. Peck’s stages are: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and true community.

Explained simply, “pseudocommunity” is polite and free of conflict; folks are rallied around their shared identities and the qualities that make them similar. “Chaos” is the time when community members realize their differences, leading them to desire to make others like themselves, reflecting a desire to return to the simplicity of pseudocommunity. I have seen this as the time when people decide whether they are going to quit, or whether they will fully commit to community and relationship. The third stage is “emptiness,” when people remove all of their expectations for the community and their desires to fix other people to make them like themselves. M. Scott Peck describes this time as an experience of group death. “True community” occurs after that emptiness. It is when healing occurs, when we begin to embrace life’s darkness along with the light. Peace and stillness live here.

Thinking about the Quaker legacy of passivism (yes, I mean passivism, not pacifism) as well as white supremacy culture’s desire for people to be machines, many of us do not have models of moving through conflict in healthy ways. It is easier for us to point to the extremes of families who express themselves smiling through passive aggression or violence and war. Quaker Voluntary Service tries to tease out the middle. “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary,” says Fred Rogers. The Fellowship year is a time where we have (many) opportunities to talk about our emotions, identify our needs, and build a stronger relationship with Spirit. Our Fellows commit to trying this experiment together, and as staff we commit to guiding them through the joys and the challenges.

In a capitalist society that values efficiency and production, our indigenous practices of community accountability and healing relationships have been largely forgotten in exchange for the carceral state. It has become normalized, when someone does something wrong, to “fix” the community by removing the person who was harmful (rather than examining how the harmful action was made possible in the first place). Recently, we have been calling this “disposability politics,” but it is as old as civilizations.

Disposability politics is currently being discussed, in part, because the internet makes mistakes more public than ever. Online communities don’t yet have the tools they need to facilitate healing and accountability in a town hall meeting of Twitter. Instead, disruptive voices are deleted, blocked, and banned. Online communities fracture and balkanize. In contrast, we are working in QVS to understand the impacts of disposability politics on our micro communities, and we are working to make it clear that disposing of people is not actually a solution.

Even though we know that conflict brings us closer to the Divine, we also know it can be painful and can trigger memories of past traumas. Because our most familiar accountability process is modeled after the carceral state, our reflexes are to push conflict away – and the people involved in that conflict – as far away as we can. So, we find that we both do and do not have the tools we need for navigating conflict creatively.  Even so, we are committed to continuing to learn how we are meant to live interdependently. We listen for God’s voice both in the silence and in the chaos of business meetings that are filled with disagreement.  ~~~

Zenaida Peterson is a recruiter for Quaker Voluntary Service and a convinced Friend. They are a poet and an organizer living in Boston, MA, and were a counselor at Mountain Friends Camp.

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