Ant Farm: Power in Intentional Community

The Value of Diversity of Thought and Heterogeneous Influences

Consider a formicarium, or an ant farm. This is a toy made popular in the 1950s which takes a normally secluded creature found almost anywhere in nature (save perhaps the Polar Regions) and makes it easily observable in an isolated and controlled context. With an ant farm, and you can watch ants doing ant stuff: making tunnels, carrying their eggs about. However, when ants live in nature, they do all sorts of things that are also interesting. They fight other species of ants, as well as other insects, some of which are much larger, yet they haul them home. They tackle leaves from plants, rebuild their homes after floods, and so much more.

Shortly after we married, Megan and I became the caretakers for a small painted turtle inappropriately named Chauncey (because it was probably a female). Chauncey lived with us for 10 years. Early on, we attempted to introduce goldfish to the aquarium tank for some diversity. Chauncey considered them a diversification—of diet. She didn’t rush anything, just snapped the tailfins bit by bit until they couldn’t swim any more. Even without any hurrying on her part, the fish were all belly up (or perhaps I should say “spine-inverted” since the turtle liked to eat the belly first) within three days.

It’s exhausting for the fish to be in an environment so small that they’re swimming for their lives constantly. For the turtle, it’s not challenging hunting.

The same fish and turtle would be much more in balance in a larger ecosystem. The fish would have somewhere to hide. They’d also interact with a great deal more diversity in plants, deal with other variables such as increasing and decreasing flow in the river, other seasonal changes, and generally struggle to survive in a good way, a way that keeps them sharp, on their toes.

It’s a bit boring (but easier to control) when animals are in a tightly contained environment where only one species can live, or, if others are added they are at the dominant species’ mercy. In the same way, the environment of a human community where variation in thought is not tolerated is controlled but uninteresting, potentially stagnant.

Intentional communities look a lot more like cults when they resemble a closed off formicarium. You can see what everybody’s doing, and make sure they’re all in their place. You can keep the lid on, so none of them escape.

The kind of dangerous pattern which leads to cults is born of a desire for homogenous thought. It may begin with a healthy desire for righteousness, but it degenerates and twists, gets bastardized, when the word gets shortened to “right”. It’s much easier to be right than righteous, after all. Once we figure out what’s right, we can make sure nobody gets hurt. No outside influences are allowed, and the ants live a happy life. Or so we think. But when a thirst for righteousness gets supplanted by a twisted desire to be right, healthy authority also degenerates into a twisted desire for power.

Intentional community done well is a lot messier. Margaret Thatcher said that “being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell someone you are, you’re not.” Truly powerful people, strong and authoritative, don’t need to worry about controlling their image as powerful. They’re less tempted (I didn’t say “not tempted at all”) to exert control over the environment. They can live with a certain amount of mess, because they know that in the end, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Their ants can live outside, encountering ants of other species and experience the world in a much more interesting way for the leader (and even for the observer) than those enclosed in a “farm”.

And isn’t the observer of some interest for those of us who deliberately join our lives in community with others? Don’t we hope they’ll say “That’s exciting! That’s unique and challenging!”?

In seeking intentional community, we’re overruling our perhaps more natural instinct to conceal our patterns and thoughts, like ants underground, and instead allowing our tunnels and actions to be known. We’re not living in an ant farm, but we do extend an invitation for others to observe us, to hold us accountable for our lives. Being known is a great thing! But how much do you want to be known, and by whom?

Choose your leaders wisely. To become part of community, you abdicate your considerable independence. You agree to leadership and observation from within, and you’re going to get observation from without, too. For example, few people love to argue more about how Christians ought to behave than atheists!

The questions people raise when they wonder if any intentional community is a cult or not present a fairly simple barometer: what is the tolerance level for heterogeneous thought? Who is in authority and how do they wield power? Are they constantly working to get more ants in their farm, or do they enjoy their ants in a natural environment, where they may interact and perhaps even be harmed? Where the people may get some different ideas from outside influences. For example, maybe they read things.

So as you think about whom to include (or exclude) as leaders and members (the members are future leaders) of a community you intentionally relate to, observe carefully the size of the tank and the teeth of the most powerful person when you’re abdicating your own power for the sake of mentoring, growth, accountability in some area. Ask yourself what they’re really about; and when will you check in on that question again? Will you give up this independence once, forever, or routinely for shorter periods of time? Because the nature of absolute power is so destructive when given to humans, I personally think committing to a communal situation for life is not healthy. But the question of whether or not those who have some power in a relationship will allow, accept, embrace and encourage heterogeneous thought on your part is perhaps the most tell-tale indicator. If you know that you disagree from the beginning and still agree to enter into community, you’ve given yourself (and those around you) a gift. The gift of diversity. I want to be like an ant in nature—a messier situation, to be sure, and perhaps more dangerous. To be sure, there’s are certain benefits that come with being in a place like an ant farm where everyone thinks alike: and I’ll get to that in my next piece. But if someone comes along and attempts to stuff everyone into an aquarium like goldfish, watch your tail.



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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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