If you’ve ever been in therapy or studied psychology, you’ve probably bumped into something called “adjustment disorder.” Appearing in the first, 1952 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s a mental health diagnosis that’s still widely employed by therapists today. Not the most nuanced assessment in the book, it often acts as a kind of generic, catchall term for “stressed out by life circumstances.” In some cases, it’s basically equivalent to “experiencing the human condition.” Scientists are reportedly still working on a cure.
After its inclusion in the clinical lexicon of the day, in common parlance this so-called mental pathology became known as “maladjustment.” When the concept reached a young Martin Luther King—no stranger to speaking truth to power already—he quickly pushed back and affirmed that “we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life… but there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted.” He gradually elaborated this instinctual knowing— a kind of sacred boundary against racial injustice— and famously called for, in a fertile turn of prophetic prose, “creative maladjustment.”
In its own, beautifully eccentric and steadfast way, the Mesa Life Project, too, is an ongoing experiment in creative maladjustment. While it’s clearly a leap from Montgomery to Mesa—from civil rights organizing in the post-war, segregated South to intentional community-building in contemporary Colorado—it’s King’s very Imagination that bridges the gap. His generative image gives traction to innumerable efforts around the world to revision how to live—including a group of (as of this writing) white, rural, aspiring communitarians.
Like King, I too am proud to be maladjusted. I only pray that my maladjustment is indeed a creative one. To me, the cost of “belonging” to the status quo has always been, simply, too high. In the end, I’m willing to pay, instead, and call it a bargain, the going price at the margins of Empire—non-negotiable and often hidden costs set by the ancient marketplace of the gods, including variable and sometimes ballooning sums of uncertainty, anxiety, and loss. Oh, and cash money, too—boatloads of it.
Another galvanizing figure—like King, martyred—famously said that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Likewise, in the tradition of what we might call, say, “dreadful wisdom,” I sometimes wonder if the very exile or dislocation from convention, from comfort, from the well-worn path—from, say, the good-steady job, suburban mortgage, and 2.5 kids—is, paradoxically, the very portal that opens to a deeper, more vital sense of home and belonging. If so, this Mesa Life Project, then, is no consumer approach to community, but a ceremonial and even sacrificial one. Now 14 years on the path, I still am not certain that we will, in fact, succeed, but in the cosmic card game of chance and imagination that ultimately comprises the MLP, this is the gamble I’m willing, still, to take.