Principle 7: Collaboration

Balance prudent self-reliance with healthy, interdependent relationships.

Some time ago, I came across a book called The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century[1](written by two psychiatrists). A quote from the book:

“Being neighborly used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbor means not bothering them.”

I think this anti-social attitude has infected much of the technologically advanced world, not just America. We leave people alone because we think that’s what they want, yet loneliness has become a hallmark complaint of modern men and women. We dare not show our faces on our neighbors’ front porches…

…yet we scrawl updates on the walls of their facebook pages, we tweet until our smart phones are hoarse, we forward emails to all our contacts. It’s paradoxical. We have an explosion of online social networks, endless opportunities to “connect,” but how many of us scroll through our computer screens, feverishly hitting the delete button, just looking for something—anything—from someone we actually know or that we actually want to spend time reading?[2]

It’s good lift up our eyes, away from our screens, and be really physically present to other human beings.

illustration from the front cover of O Come Ye Back to Ireland, painted by Christine Breen

Susan K. Rowland, in her book Make Room for God, discusses at length Sarah Lanier’s[3] comparison of “hot-climate” and “cold-climate” cultures:

“Hot-climate cultures are communal, group-oriented, inclusive and spontaneous. Cold-climate cultures are more individualistic, privacy-oriented and interested in structure and productivity.”

My parents grew up in England—which has elements of both hot- and cold-climate cultures—but cultures definitely collided when she encountered the true hot-climate culture of southern California in the 1960s. She and my dad had just moved to America with their infant daughter (me). After several months of dealing with the apparently certifiably insane population of La Mesa on the odd side of town, they moved into a new place. My mom, expecting the worst, battened down the hatches, unwilling to interact with more of these crazy Americans.

To no avail: one morning there was a knock on the sliding door of the kitchen. In walked her new neighbors with freshly baked goods and coffee. Long story short—these two or three families spent the next five years raising their small children together, and even though they now live across the continent from one another, they are friends to this day.

What does any of this have to do with simplicity?

Living and working in close proximity to other people, and building intentional community with them, simplifies things because you can pool resources of time and energy, tools and materials, emotional strength and physical skills.

“Many hands make light work.” (John Heywood, 1546)

Cocooning with just our nuclear family on the back deck while the front porch remains unused isolates and limits us. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel—you can ask your neighbor if you can borrow his wheel. And, even though we are sturdy, self-reliant Americans, we don’t have to do everything alone in this increasingly cold-climate culture:

  • The Amish and other “plain living” subcultures excel at the principle of collaboration, with their barn-raisings and other community activities.[4] [5]
  • Busy yuppies Niall Williams and Christine Breen experience the beauty of community and collaboration when they move from Manhattan to rural Ireland and work side-by-side with their neighbors on their farm.[6]
  • In The Way (2010, Directed by Emilio Estevez), a man grieves the death of his son, and also honors his son’s memory, by walking the historic “el camino de Santiago” (“the way of St. James) in France and Spain. On the journey he discovers the beauty of community and collaboration.

I’ll finish with a little anecdote from my own neighborhood. A friend who lives nearby was over at my house putting the finishing touches on some electrical work he had very kindly done for me.

As he was leaving, he said, “I think I’ll take my ladder home with me today, because I’ll need it for a project I have to do at my house.”

“Okay,” I said.

Then, after a moment’s thought, I said, “I think that ladder might be mine.”

“Hm,” he said, furrowing his brow. “Are you sure?”

We went to look at the ladder. It had been back and forth between his house and my house so often in recent months that neither of us could remember whose ladder it actually was!

He took it and used it for whatever it was he was working on, and I think it’s in my garage at the moment.

“Any culture emphasizing productivity cannot allow us to spend much time socializing.” (Susan K. Rowland Make Room for God)


[1] The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz (2009).

[2] Social Clear Cutting: Can Our Social Media Behaviors Destroy Our Social Environment?” This is a very good post by author Kristen Lamb. She writes passionately about the need to forge real connections with other people. Her target audience is other authors attempting to construct social platforms to promote their creative work, but her articles and books (We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer) still speak to anyone disillusioned by online social media and searching for rewarding interactions online.

[3] Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures by Sarah Lanier (2000)

[4] Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (1989)

[6] O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen (1987)

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…in which I review “The Way to Eden,” the Star Trek space hippies episode

Summary:

An insane cult leader and his followers, in search of a simple life in an idyllic paradise, hijack the Enterprise and take it to a planet they call “Eden.”

This episode is much-maligned by Star Trek fans because of its unintentionally humorous elements, namely the outlandish depiction of the “space hippies” and the episode’s numerous musical numbers (four) and musical interludes (three).

Not to mention Chekov’s massive back-to-front comb-over, which is truly frightening.

Actually, I think his Davy Jones hair might be worse:

Yet, the episode’s interesting concepts, though sadly eclipsed by the goofy stuff, are still worth noting.

Story synopsis:

The episode opens with the Enterprise chasing down a small stolen vessel, the Aurora. Attaching tractor beams to the vessel puts too much strain upon it and it begins to break up, so Kirk orders the vessel’s six occupants beamed aboard.

The newcomers’ leader is Doctor Sevrin, a brilliant scientist who, sadly, carries a deadly bacteria and is also mentally unstable. The group begins causing trouble almost immediately, first by refusing to leave the transporter room and ultimately by taking over the ship’s auxiliary control room and diverting course to their paradise planet, Eden.

The peace-preaching counterculturalists, however, turn murderously ugly: Sevrin rigs up a system of ultrasonic sound waves designed to at first merely disable the crew of the Enterprise while he and his group escape to the planet on a shuttlecraft, but he knows that ultimately the sound waves will kill everyone left aboard the starship.

Kirk manages to shut off the ultrasonics before the effects prove fatal. He beams down to the planet with Spock, McCoy, and Chekov. The planet is indeed beautiful, but it turns out to be dangerous and toxic: touching a flower gives Chekov second-degree burns on the palm of his hand. They find one of the young people dead on the ground with a partially eaten piece of poisonous fruit next to him. They find Sevrin and his followers in the shuttlecraft, their bare feet horribly burned. Sevrin refuses to be rescued; he rushes to the nearest tree, takes a bite of the deadly fruit, and dies almost instantly.

Story analysis:

This is not one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, but despite the silly stuff, I don’t mind it all that much.

The most interesting element of this story is the imaginary Synthecoccus novae bacteria, which infects Sevrin the way Salmonella typhi infected Typhoid Mary. Like Typhoid Mary, Sevrin is immune to the bacteria but serves as a source of infection to the people around him. For that reason, he has had restrictions placed on him that require him to travel only in areas with sufficient medical technology and resources to deal with any accidental infections he might cause.

Favorite moments:

At Kirk’s request, Spock interviews Doctor Sevrin, trying to persuade him to keep his followers in line and offering to help Sevrin find the planet Eden. During the course of this interview, Sevrin displays his willingness to expose the population of a primitive planet to the deadly Synthecoccus novae bacteria because he believes the primitives can cleanse him. During Sevrin’s brief soliloquy, Spock’s expression changes from one of placid curiosity to extreme concern as he realizes Sevrin is totally insane.

I also liked the moment at the end of Act 3 when Sevrin rigs up his deadly ultrasonic panel to the tune of a ballad about Eden. He activates the ultrasonics and the crew reacts, wincing in pain and collapsing under a soundtrack of pleasant music: “No more trouble in my body or my mind,” space hippy Adam sings, as the camera pans over the crew of the Enterprise, on the floor writhing and dying at their posts.

Favorite quotes:

Spock: “There is no insanity in what they seek.”

I’m glad Spock acknowledges this, because the space hippies, nutty as they are, merely seek a simple life[1]

True, they seek a parody and a caricature of a simple life, where they will live among primitive people in harmony with nature, frolicking barefoot in the meadows, eating fruit from the trees, free from the oppressive concerns of modern, technological life, but I sometimes entertain myself with dreams of such a life: getting off the hamster wheel into a world devoid of email and TwitFace appeals to me greatly.

However, like all utopian movements, it’s a great-sounding concept, but in practice it would be, at best, much more challenging than they imagine. Modern experiments in low-tech self-sufficiency are doomed to failure unless you go into them with full knowledge that it’s going to consist largely of demanding physical labor and hardship. Other elements that may crop up, depending on how far “off the grid” you go, include danger to life and limb[2], threats to health from disease and lack of proper sanitation and medical care[3], wild animal attacks[4], the possibility of starvation[5] — all the things our forebears sought to avoid. The reason the average human life span has increased over the past few centuries is largely because of technological advancements that protect us from nature.

The trick is to choose carefully and deliberately (freely chosen constraints) which aspects of modern life we accept and which we reject.

What happens, though, if technology backfires on us?  In the imaginary world of Star Trek, the deadly bacteria is a by-product of their way of life, and vaccination against Synthecoccus novae is required by law in order to save lives. In the imaginary worlds of many dystopic novels and movies[6], technology empowers corrupt governments to control its citizens and sharply limit their freedom in ways that are far less benign.

These are fictions, but if we don’t pay attention (vigilance) will we someday find that life has come to imitate art?


[1] This theme occurs in some other episodes of The Original Series, including This Side of Paradise, Return of the Archons, The Apple, and The Paradise Syndrome. Other film explorations of the desire to “return to nature and a more pure way of life” include Dances With Wolves and Avatar (which are actually the same plot: the first is set in 19th century earth, the second in an imaginary future).

[2] Remember the episodes in the first season of Lost, in which Boone suffered a life-threatening injury and died because the only trauma care available consisted of Jack’s expertise as a physician and the few supplies he found in the plane wreckage?

[3] Several examples come to mind: bubonic plague, yellow fever, scarlet fever, the myriad diseases affecting the destitute poor of just about every novel by Charles Dickens. I know several people — including myself — who would have died in infancy or early childhood from complications due to severe congenital heart defects, were it not for modern advances in medicine and surgery.

[4] An acquaintance who is a priest in Zambia recently told me of a woman in a local village who was attacked by a lion as she went outside to relieve herself during the night. The woman’s injuries were severe enough to require emergency medical care at the nearest hospital a day’s drive away, but unfortunately such care was not available to her because the village’s only vehicle was in use: the previous day another animal attack victim had been taken to the hospital. The second woman had to make do with the inadequate medical care available in the village clinic. I’m not sure of the circumstances of the first victim’s injuries, but indoor plumbing and sewage infrastructure would have prevented the second victim’s injuries.

[5] The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1940

[6] 1984 (George Orwell 1949); Brave New World (Aldous Huxley 1932); The Last Enemy (Masterpiece Theatre 2008); Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury 1953)

Original airdate: February 21, 1969

(The Original Series, 3rd season)

75rd episode produced

75th episode aired

Written by Arthur Heineman (story by Arthur Heinemann and D.C. Fontana, writing as “Michael Richards”)

Directed by David Alexander

Update to “How to live comfortably in a tiny little apartment”

Now I remember where I read all those statistics on house size and family size from my previous post: it was in Tsh Oxenreider’s book Organized Simplicity.[1] Here are the numbers:

In 1950 the average square footage of a new single-family home was 983.

In 2004 it was 2349 square feet.[2]

In 1950 the average family size was 3.67 persons.

In 2002 the average family size was 2.62 persons.[3]

This means that in 1950,  average-sized single-family home had 268 square feet per person.

By 2002 / 2004, the average single-family home had ballooned to 896 square feet per person—the amount of square footage that 50 years ago housed an entire family of 3 to 4 people.


[1] Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living2010 Betterway Home Books / F + W Media

[2] “Housing Facts, Figures and Trends for March 2006” National Association of Home Builders

[3] Here Oxenreider cites U.S. Census Bureau figures found in an article by Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland “Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment.” July 12, 2005. Currently available at GreenBiz.com

Two Ways of Being Happy

There are two ways of being happy: we may either diminish our wants or augment our means — either will do — the result is the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest. If you are idle or sick or poor, however hard it may be to diminish your wants, it will be harder to augment your means. If you are active and prosperous or young or in good health, it may be easier for you to augment your means than to diminish your wants. But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time, young or old, rich or poor, sick or well; and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.

–Benjamin Franklin