By Gil Cambia
Ask anyone what is the first association they have with the term “hippie commune” and you’ll get “free love.” This term technically makes no sense, unless you assume that all love in Babylon is expensive and that Milton Friedman, bless his heart (or lack thereof), didn’t mean to say “no free lunch” but “no free love”. Either way, it begs the question of what is meant by that term and whether there is any truth in it. This article is somewhat of a personal account through the thorny rose garden of compersion. [Compersion is the feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another; contrasted with jealousy.]
Ever done a trust fall? You know–when you step up on a platform and fall back, against every bit of intuition which yells at you “We’re gonna die!” and “Don’t do it,” only to be caught by all of your friends. I’ve done it many times and guided many people through the process, as I’ve worked in the ropes course industry for many years. I still remember the look on this 11-year-old boy’s face after getting caught. His eyes sparkled with a combination of elation, disbelief, sheer love, and a little bit of residual tears of fear from the 5 minutes it took him to finally drop. What I saw in him was actually a new emotion, one that he didn’t expect to experience. It was more powerful than he had words for.
This is all nice and good, but there is something different that happens to parents when they watch their children try the trust fall. They don’t get to have the endorphins, adrenaline, and peer pressure. It just feels so scary to watch a loved one go through it, especially if you don’t get to be a catcher. I’ve had some parents tell me that they went through a more challenging ropes-course experience in watching their children participate than in participating themselves. Nonetheless, it can be a powerful growing experience even when it isn’t very enjoyable.
So my little family and I moved here to the Louisa communes and started a new one called Cambia, and we’re doing quite well, all things considered. Something you need to know about the Louisa communes, however, is that people are very polite. They don’t just assume that because you are a family you must be monogamous. In fact it might be rude to utter such Babylonian terms, so they ask you right away if you are polyamorous. And asking one spouse is also too presumptive, and one should really ask both in case one of them is poly and the other is still stuck in their ways.
This is all well and good. We, of course, do not believe in sexual possessiveness and felt mildly appreciated for that. So no, we didn’t get subsumed into orgies right away. People just wanted to know in the same way that they want to know one’s preferred pronoun. But the compersious challenge came right away when my son said he didn’t want me to be his primary and that other people are more fun to play with.
Hmm… he’s right. I’m often preoccupied and am trying to do multiple things while watching him. What do I do? I try to be better and more fun but a part of me wants to tell other people in my community to not be so much fun. I don’t want him to start crying every time I tell him it’s my turn to watch him. It is so insulting. Does he not remember all of the reusable diapers I washed by hand with hand-pumped ice cold water in the rain? The answer is no, he doesn’t and he doesn’t need to remember. I wouldn’t want him to be polite and suffer through his time with me, pretending it’s the best thing since homemade flatbread. And just to add insult to injury, he sometimes calls other people “Daddy” and seems to not bother changing that mistake. Sometimes calls me by other people’s names too, but he never confuses me with the really fun people in his life.
Good Gaia, he’s only 4, not 14. I’m not ready to be snubbed. Why is this happening??? I know why, and I know that it’s good. He is growing up with endless adult attention, people to play with and teach him things. On my end, however, not only do I feel inadequate as a parent, but I also feel like I must not want what’s best for my child but what’s best for my ego.
So guess what, I realize that there is no way to win his heart without offering mine completely. I try my best to play with him with full attention, with creativity, but without being contrived or fake. I just started taking more interest in him and in wanting him to enjoy the game I create for him. This effort turned out better for everyone involved. And if Milton Friedman was reading this paper he would attribute it to the breaking of monopoly that I had over him, and that the competition sparked improvement in quality. Ugh, maybe you’re right just this one time. In the big picture, though, Milton, you’re wrong. Competition also leads to reduction in quality and increase in the Kitsch factor. The pressure on me was to be a better dad and not a more attractive dad, because my motivation was not sales but connection.
Sorry about this economic digression. Let’s digress into anthropology instead:
It takes a village, right? There is one culture remaining that does not have a word for “father” and does not have a word to distinguish “mother” from “aunt”. This is one of the last matriarchal societies on this planet.
The Mosuo people of the southern Yunan province of China have been living in a matriarchal and matrilineal way for longer than recorded history (not fair; they had no written language so most of their existence is before recorded history). Every household has a matriarch whose mother, sisters, and brothers help with raising all of their children regardless of who birthed whom.
The Mosuo traditionally have no marriage. They practice something they call “walking marriage,” which is a secret connection between a man and a woman as the man is invited by the woman to her private room, which she gets when she turns 13 after her “flower ceremony,” where she has the liberty of inviting whomever she wishes to her space and they must leave by dawn.
This ritual functions to create a complete uncertainty of paternity. Every man knows who his nieces and nephews are, but not his children. This is far from perfect now. There are many Han (dominant culture) influences and their traditional ways of life are disappearing.
The important thing to realize about the Mosuo is that they have very low rates of violence, rape, murder, warfare, child abuse or abandonment in comparison to patriarchal tribal societies. Though difficult to document or verify, it appears that more sex and more sexual diversity is experienced by both genders. This last point should surprise us, shouldn’t it? When women are in charge, there is more sex and more diversity than when men are in charge?
As one anthropologist describes it: “In matriarchies, mothers are at the center of culture without ruling over other members of society,” “The aim is not to have power over others and over nature, but to follow maternal values, ie. to nurture the natural, social and cultural life based on mutual respect.” From a reproductive perspective, it makes perfect sense. For the reproductive fitness of the female, it makes sense to have support in raising children. Unlike men, she cannot have hundreds of children through raping and pillaging, and restricting the reproduction of other men will not help her children in any way.
This is the reality of the bonobo and the naked mole-rat. They also have structurally determined paternity diffusion, and what’s the result?
Cuddle puddles! Unlike gorillas and chimps, bonobos do not fight invaders, steal their females, kill their young, play political games, or abandon their orphans. And yes, they have more sex than any other primate, and they are pretty undiscriminating about their sexual partners.
When a male does not know who is his child, and he figures that at least a few in the group are, he has an evolutionary pressure to care about the entire group, not just his own. Also, if he can’t stop a female from mating with others multiple times a day, it’s better for him just to join the fun than to try to control it.
So how did it go for me? How am I handling being in an open relationship? It wouldn’t be very interesting if I said that it was great, would it? It really wasn’t easy, though. Of course I love those who love my spouse, but it’s hard not to feel insecure. I’ll spare you the details that you may have read this far just to get to some juicy stuff.
Let me just say the following: it’s the greatest trust fall of all. Just when you think you are falling to your death, when it’s someone else’s time to spend the night with your partner, you get caught by both your partner, their new partner, and the entire support network of poly love warriors. It’s an incredible feeling. Your intuition yells to you, “She doesn’t want you anymore!” and your partner smiles and reaffirms that she will always love you. You lay there in the hands of those who caught you and you think you must have fallen to your death and woken up in heaven, and the truth is you did.
When love loses restrictions, suddenly the love with a partner becomes a true rather than an obligatory expression. Suddenly your partner not only feels owned by you but actually appreciative for the effort and struggles you are willing to go through for his or her well being. What better way is there to show love?
To be honest, it isn’t instant nirvana. It takes a long time to overcome the internalized patriarchy completely. But luckily, the path is not pure suffering. There is a distinct experience of greater love and greater security.
The cultivation of compersion is that of true love. It’s about vulnerability, it’s about trust without control, it’s both letting yourself fall and getting caught by the soft loving hands of your friends, and about watching those you love get caught by others and not by you. Through this process you get nudged to become a better, more loving, and more lovable person (or so I hope).
In a broader perspective of communal living, our movement is focused on creating wealth out of sharing, not out of possessing or overproducing. We have mastered it in shared land, housing, work, risk, costs, childcare, and many resources, but the most important aspect, the one that is also the least depleted by sharing with others, is love.