Creating Community in Later Life

The ad below is a knockoff of one that appeared in a trade publication marketing East Coast retirement properties to baby boomers. Though the promise it makes is as empty as the hype of a Bourbon Street barker, the ad’s images and evocative language tap into enormously powerful human desires. As we enter later life — and every 8 seconds for the next 18 years, someone from the boomer generation will turn 65[1] — we feel a need to heal our dual estrangement from our own selves and from the natural world.

Nestled at ease among the near-limitless expanses of one of the
East’s last surviving wilderness areas, Last Chance Mountain is
synonymous with luxurious adventure. The rustic elegance of its
mountaintop Village welcomes your mind, body and spirit to
reconnect with nature and rediscover yourself. This is where your
family comes to play. This is where you come to relax. This is
where you revel in luxury. This is your mountain. This is your home.

You long to “rediscover yourself” and live more authentically. Midlife forces us to confront “the lost and counterfeit places within us.” It challenges us to release “our deeper, innermost self — our true self.” It challenges us “to come home to ourselves [and] become who we really are.”[2]  An age-old question resurfaces. Though we thought we resolved it in our youth, it returns with new urgency born of our sense that time is running out: Who am I? In the tumult of raising a family and making a career we had somehow lost track of ourselves. Who am I now — now that the nest is empty and the career winding down? Once the frenetic activity of midlife starts to wane and things quiet a bit, we can hear the “still, small voice”[3]  calling us to “come home” to ourselves.

You long to live more simply. We feel an urge to slim down and disencumber ourselves: lose those extra pounds, clear out the attic and our storage unit (assuming we’ve kept ourselves to one!), and rid ourselves of useless regrets and poisonous resentments. The Hindus call this time of life our Forest Dwelling period, when it is appropriate to leave behind our previous things, roles, and duties — a letting go we in the West often find very threatening. But as Drew Leder writes in Spiritual Passages: “To the Hindu, aging is more than a series of meaningless losses. There are modes of liberation contributing to spiritual growth. If age strips away pride, pleasures, and profit, all the better… If our responsibilities are diminished, the time available to explore the sacred expands.”[4] 

 You long to “reconnect with nature.” We have vague memories of a natural world rife with magic and mystery. As adults, weren’t we supposed to put aside such “childish” views? And yet, our intimation — shared with Native Americans — that “the Earth is alive,” is a stubborn one. We dwell among “other beings, other forms of awareness, our voices interweave among others more-than-human,”[5]  Anthony Weston assures us. Step outside at dawn and catch the mere snippet of a bird’s song, and you are instantly transported back into this primal oneness with the world. It is only a matter of letting “the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[6] 

And finally, we long for community. We long for companions who will share our excitement for this “second journey” in life — companions who will help sustain our own efforts to live more simply and authentically. For the paradoxical truth is, “We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own.” Indeed, we only “discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love and learning.” Remember those three words: work, love and learning.[7] 

Community is what the developers of Last Chance Mountain are hawking — community served up with a heavy dollop of nostalgia. “The rustic elegance of its mountaintop Village” evokes images of a simpler time. “This is where your family comes to play” — as if all families were still like the Waltons. “This is your mountain”: not our mountain — strange community, that. (Never mind the presumption that one could actually own a mountain — that all this bounteous world, including this body I walk around in, was ever anything other than on temporary loan.) “Relax HERE. Play HERE. Indulge HERE,” the ad whispers. But who are the guests at this feast? The short answer is, those who share our “lifestyle.”

That leads us to a useful label for Last Chance Mountain, coined by the authors of Habits of the Heart: a “life-style enclave.” Unlike genuine community, which celebrates diversity and “the different callings of all,” life-style enclaves celebrate “the narcissism of similarity.”[8]  Those similarities usually include age: Sun City developments, for example, enforce a 55+-age restriction. And they always include income level: only those who, like us, can afford to ““revel in luxury” are welcome; and, in case of doubt, the guard at the gatehouse can pull your credit report. More importantly, community at Last Chance Mountain embraces only private life, and its rituals revolve around leisure and consumption.

 
 
 

“We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love and learning.”

 
 

— Habits of the Heart

 
 

Poking fun at Last Chance Mountain is a bit like hunting game with a Kalashnikov (though, trust me, it is a real place, and my only change to the advertisement copy was to rechristen the mountain). But it is important to locate developments like Last Chance Mountain within their sociohistorical context: they are outgrowths of a view of retirement as “a time to take it easy, enjoy leisure activities and a much-deserved rest from work.” This view, according to Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time, is largely the invention of one man, Del Webb, the Arizona developer/promoter whose Sun City launched the retirement community industry. It is a view that Freedman believes has lost its hold on the American imagination. When asked to choose, Americans between the ages of 50–75, by a margin of three-to-one, preferred to think of retirement as “a time to begin a new chapter in life by being active and involved, starting new activities, and setting new goals.” The numbers were even more dramatic among the boomer and pre-boomer cohorts.[9] 

The subtitle of Freedman’s book contends that “Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.” The obvious next question is, “How?” And, specifically, how in relation to this issue of community. First — though it’s a bit late in the game — let’s make an important clarification. “Community” has two aspects. When we speak of “new model communities,” we mean the physical container — the hardware, if you will. When we speak of “new models of community,” we mean the spiritual (for want of a better word) container — the software. So let me conclude with a potpourri of unsystematic ideas about where our dual search might be leading.

First, it takes only a cursory investigation to discover a vanguard of new communities, whose hallmarks are sustainability and Traditional Neighborhood Design. The more compact design of these communities encourages bicycling and walking for short trips by providing destinations close to home and work. The “sense of place” they create invites community and connects people to each other and the natural world in mutual respect. Simultaneously, interest in cohousing and other intentional community models is intense, though it is still a ways from becoming mainstream. And the ranks of architects committed to sustainable design in harmony with the environment are swelling.

This said, you may rightly point out, “Our suburbs are filled with houses that are bigger than ever.” The square footage of new homes continues to soar in inverse relation to the dwindling size of the American family. Those are not cabins they’re building on Last Chance Mountain. Where’s the evidence of a desire to live more simply? Architect Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House (the brisk sales of which are at least anecdotal evidence that change may be in the wind), laments: “So many houses, so big with so little soul.” Then she asks, “Are the dreams that build them bigger? Or is it simply that there seems to be no alternative?”[10]  I agree with Susanka that it is the latter. Developers are conservative by necessity; the stakes are high, and deviating from a tried and true formula is fraught with risk. Change will come as successful innovations become more visible and the aging boomers come to understand with greater clarity their hearts’ desires.

The places we live are the physical containers which — by virtue of their wise or careless design — encourage or discourage our interaction with others and with the more-than-human world. But our deepest sense of community is rooted in the intangible, in that network of relationships which supports and sustains our personal growth and spiritual deepening and expands our opportunities for service and engagement in the world. In the past, these networks grew in the soil of small-town life, extended family, and church affiliation. Such primary communities for many — for most? — have lost their relevance. The task we have set ourselves, then, is the monumental one of creating surrogates for the extended family and church community and the various roles they have played through the many seasons of our lives.

Reflecting on the deep friendships we form in our teens and twenties may give us clues about how to go about creating community in later life. Those early friendships grew in the soil of shared, usually intense experiences. Later life is less about experience and more about meaning. Later life calls us to reflect on and understand our cumulative experiences — a radically “unshareable” activity. If we are to create new friendships in later life, we must consciously create new shareable experiences. If they are to be deep friendships, they must be around experiences that engage our deepest, emergent self. That’s probably not golf — or, more generally, leisure and consumption, the stock and trade of life-style enclaves. It may be those things which have to do with “work, love and learning” (remember those): it may be social action, or the “Great Work”[11]  of caring for Earth, or a deep engagement in teaching and learning. At the same time — though it would seem to be an example of exactly what I am arguing for — I have misgivings about the intense negotiations that, at least from the outside looking in, seem characteristic of most cohousing developments. A certain indirection seems called for. Couples who spend a lot of time “working on their relationship” rarely succeed as well as couples who simply “do things together.”

 
 
 

“Human conversation is the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change — personal change, community and organizational change, planetary change.”

 
 

— Margaret Wheatley

 
 

Finally, I have been for a very long time interested in what I called Communities for Imagining the Future, a network of centers around which sustainable residential developments might emerge. Each center — and these might include colleges, retreat centers, organic farms, earth literacy centers, holistic healing centers — would be a kind of magnet that serves as the “strong attractor” not only for the residential community, but also for a certain kind of conversation within the culture. I firmly believe, with Margaret Wheatley, that significant change — “personal change, community and organizational change, planetary change” — begins with conversations about things that matter.[12] 

How can I live more simply and authentically? When do I feel most alive and creative? What is the work I am called to? What is the Earth asking of me? What is my gift to the family of Earth? These questions speak to all of us in every season of our lives, but they have special urgency for elders whose personal work is focused on the legacy they will leave and whose societal role is to speak for the unborn generations and for the Earth. My vision for Communities for Imagining the Future is not one I’ve succeeded in moving forward.

Several years ago, in connection with a class I was teaching, I re-read Watership Down, Richard Adams’ novel about an intrepid band of rabbits on an epic journey in search of “home.”[13]  One could learn all one needs to know about community from this “children’s” classic: that community is born in our shared experiences, that it is the stories we tell which hold our sense of community, that our very survival depends on our trust in the rich diversity of gifts each brings to the group. And finally, that what we want most from life is the sense of participating in an adventure. Not Last Chance Mountain’s “luxurious adventure” (which is a contradiction in terms), but an adventure where the outcome is in doubt and courage and hope are called for. The outcome will be in doubt if the challenge we have set ourselves to is bold enough. The hope we will need is not an excessive confidence that we will win through to the end, but the simple willingness to take the next step. As Tennyson’s Ulysses says to his aging companions, “Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” Adventure, yes, that’s what we want — even in later life.
 



Notes

1 Maria Polletta, “Rate at which Baby Boomers will turn 65.” May 27, 2011.

2 Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions (New York: Harper, Collins, 1990), p. 4.

3 Harry R. Moody and David Carroll, The Five Stages of the Soul, Charting the Spiritual Passages That Shape Our Lives (New York: Anchor Books, 1997), pp. 3–5.

4 Drew S. Leder, Spiritual Passages: Embracing Life’s Sacred Journey (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997), p. 21.

5 Anthony Weston, Back to Earth: Tomorrow’s Environmentalism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), p. 79.

6 Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 110.

7 Robert N. Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 84. Few books have provided such a penetrating analysis of the historic tension in American culture between individualism and communitarianism. As this tension again plays itself out in the strident rhetoric of the current election campaign, it is fitting to include the full quote: “There are truths we do not see when we adopt the language of radical individualism. We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of ourselves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning. Our individualism is itself one such pattern. And the positive side of our individualism, our sense of the dignity, worth, and moral autonomy of the individual, is dependent in a thousand ways on a social, cultural, and institutional context that keeps us afloat even when we cannot very well describe it. There is much in our life that we do not control, that we are not even ‘responsible’ for, that we receive either as grace or face as tragedy; things Americans habitually prefer not to think about. Finally, we are not simply ends in ourselves, either as individuals or as a society. We are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price. If we are not to have a self that hangs in a void, slowly twisting in the wind, these are issues we cannot ignore.”

8Habits of the Heart, p. 72.

9 Marc Freedman, Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America (Public Affairs, 1999), p. 224. Freedman’s history of how modern retirement was “invented” is a spellbinding one.

10 Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2001), p. 7. Susanka’s book bears the appropriate dedication: “For our grandchildren.”

11 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).

12 Margaret J. Wheatley. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2002), p. 3.

13 Richard Adams, Watership Down (New York: Avon Books, 1972).