Musings on Living in Community

Berlin hub resident, Jaques, reflects on his time living in community.

In June, after roughly two years that I mostly spend with the Life Itself Berlin Hub I moved out of the shared living. During this time, the hub expanded from one flat and three people to four flats and a shared space providing a home for eleven people from around the globe. Along the way, many people called this place a home. For some days, a month or longer.

No one really knew each other before. So this was a great experiment in building community, working with and through diversity and organising a way to be, to learn and to evolve together.

I decided to join the community because living in community was both a long-held curiosity for me and a way to explore Berlin (albeit the pandemic was a very special time for this). And what was first a month extended to two years. Two years that have a been important in many ways and being in community provided a space to learn and discover with fresh eyes how people make home and life through community and who I am in these times.

Today, I believe more than ever that community can be created and cared for in order to support, catalyse and facilitate personal growth and catalyse new ways of living together. This takes both effort in shaping the community together and openness, reflectiveness and stamina by the individuals involved. It is a constant effort molding a way of being, a local culture in response to and driven by the needs of individuals and the particularities of the space and its surroundings.

The development of such a local (team or community) culture is an emergent phenomena, and as such can not be controlled. Yet, it can be shaped and reflected upon. That needs situations in which the community comes together and can understand what is important for each other at this moment in time, what the needs are, and where to go from here.

On rules and routines

The moment people get together in groups the question arises how they want to work or live together and it will be answered; either implicitly or explicitly.

Right from the start, the then community manager and I agreed that we needed to create spaces for the community to come together and provide a space for reflecting how we want to live together. With the growing of the community and new people joining these practices were further developed and supported by the development of value statements and shared visions for the place.

These efforts to create, maintain and adapt the rules and routines for living well together have of course been challenging (with the dynamics of the covid pandemic a constant invitation to think and rethink agreements), yet incredibly valuable. From the viewpoint of community I want to highlights two essential insights:

  1. Writing down values and reading them out loud won’t do the trick. Only listening to each other, dialoging and sitting with the inevitable trouble that arises when different people with different backgrounds come together. They key to developing a shared culture is how a community comes together, not what you write on the wall. The results of these conversations is important (and we developed beautiful, powerful values for the Berlin Hub). Yet, it is the process that matters.
  2. There is a saying in organisational development that many rules create stupid behavior (many paradoxes of beaurocracies seem to confirm this). I think that this is also true for communities. In the development of agreements and rules, I felt that trying to be very precise often misses this or that exception. Within the primacy of being together, rules that are more general, or even contain some paradox, seem to be better suited than overly detailed rules.

Take care of the place and the place will take care of you

The place we live in affords certain types of behaviours and attitudes and it responds to and makes tangible the values we live by. And a community space is an odd thing: it is half personal, and half public, being used by the people you life with. And each person going through and making use of the space shapes this environment – in turn shaping the experience of the people coming after you. In effect, a community space is a direct indicator for and expression of the values lived in the community.

We all know the feeling if we enter spaces that are well cared for. Spaces that feel alive and beautiful. I believe that this happens because these spaces have been shaped by and for the habits of the inhabitants. While the circumstances at the hub were far from ideal in terms of the constraints we had, at the best of times it worked to be a space that served both as a workplace for many and a gathering point for social activities.

We had a saying during the two years that I still hold as an aspiration in thinking about space: Leave the space better than you found it. In a best case, this creates a virtuous spiral of co-owning the set-up of the space and how it feels: cared for.

Own your power, own your shit, care for others

We all come from different places and bring different stories to a life in community. Some people feel more comfortable in speaking up and out, for others this is challenging. Some have access to more resources others less. And these diversities make up the dynamics of relationship.

The past two years have been a challenging and very rewarding space to learn about how I relate, what I bring to conversations and into relationships and what my privileges and shadows are. In fact, this is one of the key reasons for me to be in community. Not to have therapy (I have that), but the constant invitations to experience the richness of relating to each other in a more aware and hopefully a more healthy way. Doing this involves deep and dark valleys, but they are part of the journey.

This is only possible if we move in a context that feels safe enough to show up and show ourselves. While others can contribute to this through their awareness for how they relate and show up, for their rank, shadows and privileges, it is ultimately upon ourselves to decide to show up and step into the dynamics of relating. To say yes to our own agency.

Stepping into agency also involves being seen by others, being reacted to and exposed to feedback. And this can be very challenging (it was for me). We all bring our bruises and wounds to community, sometimes mistaking what is for what was or what we hope for. And we need to own the baggage that we carry and the feedback we get for it.

As there are so many others in community it is tempting to locate our irritations with the other. And it is needed to be clear, kind and fast with our feedback to the other, if there is behaviour we do not want or can tolerate.

Yet, every irritation is also an invitation to inquire into our reaction, into what story we bring to the situation and what we might have done to escalate or contribute to it. I am more than grateful for the rich feedback and insights I got from being with the people at the Berlin Hub.

Balance what is and what could be

Everyone comes to community with hopes and dreams. We enter a space and allow ourselves to dream into the possibilities it holds – for ourselves, the community and the space itself. And at the same time, these hopes and dreams are confronted by the realities of others and the constraints of what is.

Generating spaces to explore what could be was an essential practice within the community. We build models of the shared space, developed visions and values and connected us with the aspirations we hold for ourselves and the community. This is an empowering path that supports us in practicing our imagination, provides orientation and creates momentum and energy.

This visionary work needs two be balanced on two dimensions.

  1. In community, we never develop the vision of what could be on our own. A central learning for me during my time at the hub is that if you want your idea to change the world, it needs to stop to be your idea alone. Maybe this just means that it gets support by others. But most likely this means that your idea gets undone and redone by others. A sense of community arises when people feel they can participate and contribute. When their voice is heard and respected. If people feel that they can balance the ideas by the founders, the elders, the loud-speakers in the community with their own ideas, their own vision this sense of community will be strengthened. This might slow decision making down, this might create sub-optimal solutions in community (be it for keeping powerful people in the community in check), but it enables to build a culture of participation and inclusivity.
  2. A preoccupation with what could be blinds us to see what is. This was certainly true for me: at various points I was unhappy with how the community dealt with the spaces or how committed it was to shared practices and community events. But it was my image of what the life at the hub should be and I overlooked other aspects of what was emerging in the community that people experienced as valuable and enriching.

There is a fine balance to be found in appreciating and building from what is and working towards what could be. While we need both a grounded realism and bold aspirations, it is important to not sacrifice the here and now for a future that might never realize. And often it might just be best to start from what is and mobilize the good experiences and solutions that are already here and build from there.

Don’t take yourself too serious

A community navigates many tension fields: different viewpoints, life trajectories and finding arrangements with money, care, space and pandemics. These tension fields are spoken to and for by different people in the room.

At the hub, we had long and hard discussions around how we deal with the pandemic for example. And we had voices that advocated for a stricter or less strict handling of the situation (we handled it quite strictly). In these heated discussions it is easy to take arguments personal.

But often they are not: they are an expression of the paradoxes and tensions in the subject matter itself, expressed through people (and yes: people have preferences for certain things and often take that stand in discussions). These discussions intensify or escalate if we conflate what is said with the person who says it. Assuming a difference between the person and what is said opens up space and supports us in not taking ourselves (and the feedback of others) too seriously.

Living with others can be outright frustrating sometimes. People live their own lifes and you life yours. They touch and cross at various points: in the kitchen sink, the speech time in meetings and in the moments in which you just had to take that call before the meeting and you show up late. I am certainly tempted to take many things personally and perceive my ideas and invitations to the community as an extension of my self (they are in a way). If they get rejected I got offended.

Sitting through many meetings and practices in the past two years made me time and time again aware of the power of humour to open up situations and to laugh about ourselves and the dynamics of the situations. After all, we are all part of this mess. With humour, we can take distance and joy in it.

Joining the Life Itself community in Berlin was a – more or less – spontaneous decision. Albeit I held the intention to live in community at some point in my life, the moment came sudden. What was intended as a month turned into two years. And they have been rich years. I am grateful for this opportunity, these learnings and to those who lived with me in these years!

At some point in her life, a member of the community started to knit small leaves and over time, there seemed to be abundant supply. It was on the occasion of the first community manager leaving the community that a ritual took shape. The “leave-ing” ceremony. We convened in the shared space and the leave made a round. Each person spoke to the person leaving, sharing a moment or an experience they cherish with that person, what they are grateful for and what they wish the leaving person for the future. Then, the leaving person does the same. For me, this ritual brought together many elements that speak to the functioning of the Berlin Hub and communities: it build on what was there already (the leaves), focused on good memories, strengths and things that we cherish.

Thanks to everyone caring for and holding the space over the last two years, striving to make it a home and building a culture of relating wiser.

Jacques is a social psychologist, facilitator, coach and educator. He works with profit and not-for–profit clients to ignite, facilitate and sustain transformation in organisations, teams and communities. Founder of, and