The Call of the Unintentional Community

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Nicholas Christakis is a physician-sociologist whose recent book Blueprint “…explores the ancient origins and modern implications of human nature.”  I’m reading this fascinating book for research toward the work I do with groups.  So far, the author’s argument is enlightening especially if one reflects on our life with COVID-19, which the book preceded by several months.

Christakis begins by explaining the difference between intentional and unintentional communities and how they might thrive or, in many circumstances, not survive the calamity that created them. For now, let’s focus on the unintentional; those are communities brought together by, usually, unexpected catastrophes.  Christakis focuses on shipwrecks because almost every recorded famous shipwreck presents a story of people totally deprived of life-lines. They have to be resourceful and creative to survive, usually on an island hostile to their life experiences.

One example is where two ships were lost on opposite sides of an island 290 miles south of New Zealand.  Neither crew knew the other was washed ashore and they lived that way for several years.  However, one community thrived because they were, essentially, communitarian.  They elected their leader every so many years and they shared tasks equally.  They built a cabin, made their own concrete out of ground seashells and sand, made shoes from sealskin, learned different languages, created chess pieces and dominoes to play during recreation. They resolved disputes without violence.  In short, no one was considered superior to the others. The leader was “head of a family” who “maintained order with gentleness and harmony.”  By contrast, survivors of the other shipwreck, isolated on the same island, lived an attitude of “…every man for himself, including the captain.” They exhausted their innate creativity by scheming to make themselves as individuals more comfortable than the others. They depleted their food supply by thievery and became frighteningly violent after draining the kegs of liquor. Eventually, the first group made a dingy which got three of them to New Zealand to seek help for the remaining men still on the island. The other crew was never discovered until scientists found their bones many years later.

Scientifically these incidents are “natural experiments” but they beg a comparison to our current situation and our faith at this time.  I have been shaken with concern seeing protesters at the family home of our Medical Officer for the State of Ohio and for the physical assault of a journalist at the Capitol just because she was wearing a face mask.  What kind of unintentional community do we want to create that will help us all survive?  We must all give up a lot these days but how much does it hurt to listen to the scientists and medical professionals whose only vested interest is the health of our country? We all have good and valid opinions, but like the individuals marooned on the island, we cannot survive without listening to those who have the knowledge we need to thrive once again.


It seems there is a call to the unintentional community, a call to help it heal, to get healthy again, to find itself, to thrive.  All this has to be achieved through everyone’s commitment and everyone’s attention to knowledgeable leadership, whether one agrees or not.  This was the situation the followers of Jesus found themselves in, sheltering in place, facing an epidemic of fear.  When they threw open the doors of their shelter, they no longer had their jobs or careers. They were now evangelizers of a new faith.  They had to scuttle everything they took comfort in. They faced a “new normal.”  They needed to support each other and assist in creating a new community.  

Try to read the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles for a feeling of that early unintentional community which became an intentional one later

Then ask yourself: Have I committed myself to thinking of the bigger picture rather than just my own interests during this time of the unintentional community?  

3 thoughts on “The Call of the Unintentional Community

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  1. Unfortunately, i think some people and groups of them find this virus inconvenient and that’s the end of it. The hostility grows from their discontent with the present circumstance. Combating science makes no sense but there are other forces at play in leadership roles.If anything this virus has completely polarized us when it should unite as those on the island. Is this the hand mankind plays when the chips are down?


  2. Very timely and “spot on” so far as being open to whatever “new norms” are appropriate.
    Thanks, Mary Ann !


  3. Thank you, Sr. Mary Ann, I need to get a copy of this book! Have you checked out Mother Boniface Spirituality Center’s Facebook page? Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, has a terrific Easter Bible series you can access on that page, using the readings you mention. Very powerful! take care, Margaret (class of ’69, former student at Lumen Cordium)


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My Inner Light

Spiritual reflections through self-development, nature, meditation and dreams

Kimberly Novak, Author

Creating Gems of Inspiration - All for the Glory of God

CSJLife | All Things Vocations

with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis

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