Habits of a Healthy Community
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 19, 2014

Typically when we are talking about being healthy, we mean physically healthy. And healthy habits include things like good diet, exercise, rest, play and going to the doctor when you are sick. Emotional health is also a common enough concept – laugh and cry, when you are angry you should talk about what’s bothering you, and seek help and support when you are emotionally unwell. I’ve preached about Spiritual health before and talked about healthy habits that echo those mentioned from these other aspects of health: good diet of spiritual nourishment, spiritual exercise, spiritual rest and play, seeking help and support when you are spiritually unwell.

So I wondered if the echoing could continue when talking about habits of healthy communities. And it does not; or at least not without the rigorous contortion of concepts and manipulation of semantics… which might have been fun but I was tired last night and opted to really grapple with this instead.

The primary difference is that our topic here is about groups rather than individuals, and the fact that there are individuals in the group is a fundamental source of where things can go amiss. Indeed, the bulk of the information I uncovered about creating and sustaining a health community was largely about navigating the needs of the individual within the needs of the group.

When I uncovered this pattern I was at first a little distressed. I’ve preached about navigating the needs of the individual and the needs of the community plenty of times already. I’m not sure what I can say that is new and fresh. But then I remembered! A few years back a BU student gave me an abstract about community health from an evolutionary perspective. I was fascinated! I was used to thinking about evolution on the epochal level and in particular about biological evolution. Yet here was a paper about how communities develop … evolutionary sociology perhaps. The paper talked about collective-choice arrangements, well-defined boundaries, graduated sanctions, and nested enterprises. It had sentences like: “The first condition is that both appropriation and provision rules conform in some way to local conditions, … such as its spatial and temporal heterogeneity.”

But before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you a story.

I was at a minister’s conference a few years back, the topic was on leadership and authority. There were a few dozen of us in the multi-day course, and when we came in to the room after our lunch break on the second day, the presenters had set up a game for us.

There was tape on the floor dividing the room into thirds. We were each assigned a section with most of us in one section, a smaller number in the middle section, and about five people in the last section. We were given only one rule – don’t cross the lines.

At first, knowing the course was about leadership and authority, we played along. After about ten minutes, we started crossing the lines just to see what would happen. When nothing obvious happened, most of us roamed the room. Some people pulled up the tape and used it to make art or create new boundaries. I started at the big end, but over the course of the activity I occupied every section of that room you can be assured. Eventually I say down and started a rousing hymn sing.

Some of what we learned while processing the experience is that when left with no direction or aim, no leadership, people tend to accomplish a significant amount of nothing in particular. We also learned that Unitarian Universalists tend to be ‘boundary crossers’ which can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing depending on the boundary and why it is being crossed.

Crossing boundaries is good and just when we are partnering with the oppressed, when we are meeting the ‘other’ across our differences, when we challenging a status qua that is unjust. Crossing boundaries is bad when we are abusing our power or other people, when we are taking advantage of the trust that has been given to us, when we see every boundary as just a challenge rather than as a guide to navigate the needs of the individual with the needs of the group.

Boundaries are a tool, how we use them is the question. Consider the boundaries that have been town down in our national discourse around civil rights and marriage equality. Consider the boundaries for things like becoming a judge or a police officer, or the boundary established by a labor union. Not every boundary is a bad boundary. One mark of a healthy community is well-defined boundaries. They serve as guides to navigate the needs of the individual along the needs of the group. Part of the trouble is when a boundary no longer serves or has been manipulated to perpetuate harm.

But boundaries was just one principle among several mentioned in that abstract about the evolutionary perspective on healthy communities. There were principles around monitoring and conflict-resolution and the recognition of rights.

Another article I was reading told the situation of the lobster fisheries in Maine. The population of lobster is a limited, though regularly replenished, resource. The fishers in each area organize themselves and coordinate where they will each lay their traps. There are laws in place at the state and local level, but most of the establishment and enforcement of the group’s norms are done at the informal in-group level. The Lobster fishers coordinate, monitor and sanction themselves as a collective.

There is no room for an independent lobster trapper to work, they have to be part of the ‘harbor gang.’ A person cannot just decide one day to go out into the harbor one morning and catch a few dozen lobster and start a side business. They have to join the ‘harbor gang.’ This is perhaps a troubling boundary if we are talking about freedom and inclusion, encouraging entrepreneurs, and welcoming the stranger. But the boundary serves not only to protect the current lobster fisher, it also maintains the fishing at a sustainable level and protects the ecosystem. The boundary navigates the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. Part of the function of this habit is to protect the viability and sustainability of the lobsters as a resource – to guard against the tragedy of the commons.

On the global scale, however, these issues play out in the conversation around developing countries seeking to exploit and overuse resources as a means toward the end of achieving what they see other countries have achieved. The concept of stewardship keeps coming up for me; not simply conservation of the resources, but careful and wise use of the resources.

In the example from the Garrett Hardin reading this morning, he says ‘freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” Hardin then offers the vignette of leaders in the community asking a member to stop overusing the commons while secretly thinking that person a fool if they abide by the request because those leaders continue to exploit the resources.

But what if we imagined a model in which the leaders did not use coercion or deceit as their technique to seek compliance. What if instead the leaders used persuasion and example? I’m not suggesting that the grand solution to the tragedy of the commons is personal integrity of the leadership. But it is, to my mind, one of the key components.

The models out there in game theory and economic theory and now this evolutionary perspective as well, emphasize the observable and empirical evidence: this is what we see human beings do when they are in groups. Individuals in groups are often self-focused, looking to achieve a sustainable and comfortable position.

But one of the pieces of my role is not just to observe, it is to cast a vision of how to be better at this. So the habits of a healthy community I would support include the boundaries and the graduated sanctions and collective-choice arrangements. But more than that, I want my communities to also have the habits of encouraging personal integrity and fostering stewardship. A recognition of fallibility and room for grace would be helpful as well, but I’m not sure how to institute that … except by example.

In the end, the best habits will be those that help align the needs of the individual with the needs of the communities. They are the habits of individuals in the community, but they are also the community norms and ethics.

What are the habits you see as productive and healthy in a community? What patterns of behavior do you find helpful in others and in yourself that further this human venture in community? Where do you find helpful boundaries and personal integrity encouraged? Consider your groups, your communities, your local and national and global communities … What are the habits you would lift up and promote?

May we all find places where our integrity and example can make a difference. May we discover ways to foster the norms in our communities that build rather than destroy, that bless rather than curse, that hold rather than tear apart. May we learn the habits that make us whole.

In a world without end,
May it be so