“Tribe” bookclub conversation piece/cathartic meandering (blog)


Community-inspired artwork on the only abandoned building in my gentrified neighborhood.

“There are obvious psychological stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation. Most higher primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are few examples of individuals surviving outside of a group.” – Sebastian Junger

It’s been gnarly to walk around for a couple of weeks thinking about ‘tribe’ and ‘community’ and ‘belonging.’ It’s made me yearn for the past and I’ve quite honestly felt a tad lonely coming home at night. I’ve experienced evenings feeling indignant over my decision to live alone for the past two years (followed closely by memories of less-than-ideal roommate situations). I’ve lost myself in sweet reveries of life lived in Port Townsend where at times I could claim to be a big fish in a little pond, community actualized in my daily activities, friendships and all of my needs met within a short stroll (also conveniently glossing over the feeling of entrapment that eventually compelled me to leave 11 years ago this fall).

In the process of pondering my place in this world I’ve reached out to various members of my friend circle to discuss these themes and learned the subject matter is good at triggering anxiety in most everyone. Is it triggering some for you? It’s triggered some for me too as I carelessly unearth buried memories or face some inconvenient truths about the individualistic lifestyle I’ve long been living. “Tribe” offers intense themes to ponder, particularly for those who’ve lived through any kind of trauma, or who feel a bit disconnected in an urban setting.

Who knew?

One particularly interesting conversation occurred on Sunday with an old friend from Port Townsend. We commented on the disconnectedness of life in Portland, how we only saw each other one or two times per year yet lived relatively close to one another. Portland is a city of unique neighborhoods-like-small-towns, and often times people become attached to one or two areas and don’t venture beyond those confines. Yet these are also transient neighborhoods, and Portland itself is a transient city. I commented on how I’ve lived near SE 30th and Belmont Street for the better part of eight years and don’t have more than one or two acquaintances living within walking distance (plus some familiar bartenders and an ex-girlfriend). That’s quite desolate, from a community perspective.

Port Townsend, we boasted over several pints, was a much better set up for experiencing actual community. On weekend nights in PT your options were limited to a half-dozen social establishments so we’d often run into many people we were friends with, or simply knew, knew of, recognized, or intended to avoid. If someone threw a house party, everyone would catch wind – and there were social repercussions if you said you would arrive or participate in some aspect and did not. Not in any kind of dramatic sense, but when you’re constantly running into one another at the coffee shop, street corner, grocery store, pub – there is seemingly a tribal-like responsibility that is more apparent in that setting. I suspect this is just one example of the greater fabric of human connectedness experienced in a community.

Conversely, my experience is that city life is so disconnected – that it’s more acceptable to be flakey and non-committal about everything – or that you simply have more obligations pulling you in limitless directions so many invitations must be declined due to prior commitments. Options abound. Everyone seems to silently understand that we all have busy lives (unless I’m burning bridges everywhere I go?). But honestly, I don’t like it. I don’t like my own behavior in this regard. I’d need to clone myself to properly maintain all of my human relationships, and that’s disappointing.

The disconnectedness of contemporary urban tribalism.

I thought about this idea as I walked through Laurelhurst Park Sunday and saw over a dozen adults stumbling around looking at their phones while playing the new Pokémon game. I was stumbling along too, trying to find the perfect song on Spotify to compliment my current mood as I trudged around being all moody and deep and shit. The scene was a technology induced zombie apocalypse – complete with gaping mouths, drool and moaning – and if anything, a great metaphor for my thought stream. Truth be told, most of those people, had they packed their phones away, wouldn’t have looked at me in the eyes when I walked past them anyway, would they? You don’t really do that in a city. I mean, I do it to all of the attractive women I walk past, but as a general rule you don’t. Culturally speaking. It wouldn’t be any different than anything I experienced walking around Berlin. And Berlin too is an ultra-modern city with all the trappings of individualism. Case closed. Cities are awful!

Conversely, anyone with any experience living in a small town knows that a trip downtown can be extended by an hour just due to the sheer number of acquaintances you run into. Is this better or worse? We had a thing called “Port Townsend time” which is comparable to what Hawaiians refer to as “Island time” -I’ve also heard it called “peninsula time.” Whatever you call it, it’s a system of tribal time keeping to account for the sheer number of people you’ll likely run into during a stop at the grocery store in a small town. Case closed. Small towns are awful!

As the week wore on I learned about Pokémon Go uniting people through clubs and assorted activities, and was embarrassed by my earlier judgments. Churches are using the technology to usher in new flocks to their parking lots. Realtors are trying to inspire new homebuyers. Some girl discovered a dead body, some kids found a loaded gun, one guy got stabbed. Communities rejoiced.

* * *

I was struck by an experience Junger writes about in the introduction. If you recall, he’s a young man backpacking across the United States and finds himself in a rural part of the Dakotas. As he marches through a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, an older rough-looking man tracks him down along the highway and approaches Junger. The man asks if Junger has any food, but Junger says no – believing he’s about to be robbed. He was then humbled as the man offered his lunch to Junger, who then learns the man is relatively destitute but couldn’t bear to see a young kid wandering around rural Dakota without proper provisions. Junger ties this action into an instinctual human tribal nature to express altruism for those among the tribe in need, and uses this story to kick off the book.

I scoured my brain for examples in my own life where I’ve benefitted from the notion of “Tribe.” There’s a lot of silent, boring ones. Infrastructure projects? Public education? Litter patrols? I finally remembered a time I flew from Paris to Belgrade and Air Serbia was out of vegetarian sandwiches for Western pansies like me. The Serbian man sitting next to me had already taken a sloppy bite out of his, but he knew what was going on. Perhaps I exuded a panicked look in my eyes as I viewed the processed ham. He spoke no English, but motioned to me with his half-eaten sandwich to switch for my meaty alternative. It was a compelling gesture, from Serbian/American political standards, so I felt inclined to eat his sandwich, regardless of the glistening bite mark. I highly doubt that Serbian vegetarians exist – but perhaps they do – and perhaps this was a grand gesture of tribalism. Or maybe he was unlucky to receive a vegetarian sandwich in the first place and was an opportunist.

The world will never know.

What was I supposed to be writing about again?