Let me be clear, I don’t come from a tribal society. We know that being tribal is bad and being multicultural is good, don’t we? Yet when I write that, I am not so sure. I guess I’d like to say I don’t have a tribal heritage, but, on the other hand, it seems that I exist in a tribal culture. Liberals and conservatives, one type of religion or denomination or another, homeowner or home-renter, car owner or mass transit rider, materialist or idealist, suburbanite, small-towner, rancher/farmer, or city dweller, dog or cat lover, vegetarian/vegan or meat eater —- the tribes are everywhere. I suspect this way of cutting things up is a little primitive, and I think, if our language is going to actually suit our experience, we may need more nuance of the sort described here. LGBTQ+ may not be enough letter symbols, and the “+” is either a lazy or a practical way of dealing with the ad infinitum absurdity that follows. The difficulty is that so many people I know self-identify on one of the seeming binary oppositions named above. And I want to take part in a little of this self-identifying, but the oppositions listed above don’t make a lot of sense to me, and are soooo intuitively primitive. As I think about it, primitive isn’t the right word either; that implies that what I am doing is “evolved” or “civilized”, and I certainly don’t intend that either. Instead, I want to use “tribe” in the sense that it actually includes some people and excludes others, as they stand at the moment. I want “tribe” to have the sense of a particular home, with particular members, and identified by particular rituals.
But self-identifying is important, isn’t it? After all, a little clarity about where we stand, about our values and beliefs, our loyalties matters. The last thing one wants to discover is that one has been determined by someone else – even to the point of believing the single story that other person or group has thrust upon them. If there is one story about you, don’t you want to have some part in telling it? Thinking and writing about my tribe is part truth-telling, and part truth-generating. Well, those are my motives in the following.
But I suspect there is more than one story about each of our lives, and the effort to self-identify will have something to do with the varied contexts we have emerged in, whether they be physical, relational, natural, psychological, emotional, intellectual and/or spiritual. The effort to self-identify in that awareness is, then, an effort to say what is, and in-so-doing, to help my readers gain some clarity beyond the rhetoric around them by reflecting realities that you may find have not been adequately described.
Where is my tribe?
Tribes are often thought of as the communal context in which you emerge. In my case, I emerged from an Anabaptist context in Canada. Specifically, I grew up in a small city in Manitoba. Some of the features of being Anabaptist (Mennonite specifically) and being from a small city (people outside Canada would call it a “town”) remain. I proudly claim being part of an historic peace heritage, of the belief in the power of smallish communities to contribute and generate a good life, and with some affinity to the value that connection to land is also essential to a good life. I also believe that I exercise meaningful choices, which may not be as strong as the Mennonite idea of Free Will, but is not far from it. In other words, land is sacred; the people around me are sacred; and God is experienced in such sacred contexts. Other parts of being a large town Anabaptist are present but latent, including a love for the open spaces of the Canadian Prairies, and the persistent idea that winter is coming. Anabaptists have had a loose ethnic background, but the diversity within even that rough characterization is not particularly defining for me. The parts I hold onto in Anabaptism are values, not biologically or visually quantifiable facts. That is the tolerant (Canadian) aspect I can say without shame (Mennonite).
However, as an adult, I have lived in a variety of communities and amidst people from other religious traditions. I have worshipped with Christian Reformers, Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Anglicans, and have even spent significant sacred time with Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs. I have lived in large towns in Thailand and Germany, medium-sized cities in Canada, Saudi Arabia, the US and South Korea, a beach-side town in Thailand, and large cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Busan. I have lived in houses, basements, townhouses and duplexes, and apartments and studios surrounded by farm fields, suburban sprawl, skyscrapers, farm fields, deserts, and jungles. I have found members of my tribe in each of these contexts.
All that being said, I can’t locate my tribe in any of these places. It is more difficult than that. Locating my tribe requires a more nuanced language than simply geography or religion. Where are they?
It turns out, and you may be saying, my tribe has something to do with the transcendence of religious, national, or ethnic boundaries. And that is true. However, I have found that my tribe, i.e. the groups or individuals I belong to, can’t simply be categorized as “world travelers or citizens”, or as “spiritual rather than religious”. There are many people who fit those categories with whom I don’t feel at home. Rather, I would say that they are people, whether or not they have traveled much or have multi-ethnic circles of friends or family, who live with the awareness that they belong to the entire world (either global or cosmically understood), and their lives are impactful not only locally but also in global or cosmic sense. In other words, they live in a world that goes beyond what they can perceive as individuals. They realize that there are as many unintended consequences to their lives as there are intended consequences. These people live in every place I have dwelled. They share the idea that they may be local to many different environments and religious traditions, but that their lives reach out further than their localities.
In my case, as an example, I can make my way around a Mennonite church and community with some fluency, or my current city of Edmonton, Canada, but that church or community does not act as a boundary for my life. Many of my actions will take place within those places, but there is so much more that transcends those environments to which my life has some effect. People in my tribe will have a similar orientation, and they are located everywhere.
Where is my tribe? They are located in a global perspective manifested in local actions. They are located in the spirit that the actions they undertake open to an unintended future, where everything they do has the potential of transforming the all-too-common experience that each day will be like the last.
My Tribe’s Rituals
I will try to keep this as brief as possible, because enumerating all the rituals of my tribe could be endless. Let’s consider three rituals that are sustainable, or may need mere tweaking, and three that need to be radically changed. There may be internal inconsistency in enumerating these rituals this way; that is evidence that you and I are now leaning to truth generating (towards ideals) rather than truth-telling (towards present facts).
One of the wonderful rituals of my tribe is the consistent and deliberate effort to nurture healthy families. This ritual manifests in nurturing loving “partnered” relationships and in raising children who can rely on a caring support network in becoming who they are. While a strong model in my mind is the Judeo-Christian model of marriage, such deliberately healthy families are not limited to sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead these families have regular contact that provide discipline, nurture freedom, and share experiences together to the benefit of each individual member. People who follow this ritual are part of my tribe. In this regard, my tribe includes my birth family, my spouse and children, my in-laws, and those of non-nuclear families, or those families of inter-racial, inter-generational or alternative sexually-oriented backgrounds.
Another fantastic ritual of my tribe is to deliberate about, and play with, issues of common concern together. Whether or not they agree, they talk together, and they consider each other’s perspective. Members of my tribe are aware that others are basically good, yet fallible, and that there are shared issues of concern that one cannot escape. Each tribal member appreciates the participation of other members, and they play together in discovery. They read, and think, and come together. They are thoughtful and engaged, and they participate with others in good faith. They are open to criticism, willing to engage critically with others, and develop their own individual doctrines. They do not insist on their unconscious dogmas. In other words, members of my tribe playfully deliberate about issues that matter. My tribe often includes liberal arts majors, scientists, and engaged citizens. A member of my tribe would listen to Jordan Peterson, but not believe everything he says.
An equally honoured ritual of my tribe is the faithful, if imperfect, stewardship of resources and environment. People in my tribe may or may not be good at managing their money (I am certainly learning), but they believe it is important. Their attitude towards money is somewhere on the triangle of saving, earning, and investing. Perhaps the more one drifts away from investing towards spending, or from earning to saving, the further one gets from my tribe. In other words, my tribe has members with socialist ideals on distribution of wealth or who are fiscally conservative (like cowboys), but excludes those who only earn and do not save, and those who save but don’t attempt to earn.
But more importantly than money, my tribe considers the stuff of the world as finite, and lives with the awareness that every single thing they own or consume is involved in biological, economic and cosmic processes from which they are only temporarily abstracted. I do not buy an apple in the grocery store without knowing, consciously or consciously, that there is an economic, biological, and cosmic reality to which that apple (and my intake of it) is not integrally connected. My tribe also recognizes that being allowed to pick and eat an apple from my neighbour’s tree removes the economic connection, but adds a social one. Likewise, the recently discarded sofa from my old house exists somewhere in object-like pieces somewhere else on this planet, and if it has been reduced to more elemental chemical properties, it has been done so using great effort and energy resources. My tribe also holds on to certain objects with deliberate sentimentality, like the lamp my late father used daily that now enlightens my bedside table, or the set of carved elephants my aunt brought back from India in the 1960’s that inspire me to continually experience the world. In other words, my tribe includes people who are on a scale of significant awareness of their own interaction with the world around them, and process material things with a greater or lesser awareness of their impacts. We happily shop on the local online marketplace, or garage sale, to recycle, at greatly reduced cost, those material things that have been wrongly valued by others who may or may not be members of the same tribe.
Beyond these honoured rituals, there are some customs in my tribe that are destructive and not sustainable: consumerism, addiction, fragmentation.
This is really the other side of the resource stewardship I mentioned above. But my tribe has this nasty habit of indulging in all-out consumerism. To quote Fight Club, people are “working jobs we hate, buying shit we don’t need” often to impress people who don’t really care. I can’t deny that this is my habit too, and if I were honest, I would say that I am on the less-aware side of the stewardship aspect written above. But I am not alone. My tribe still believes that consumer behavior signals security, by demonstrating home and car ownership, good clothes and fancy appliances and accessories. That is a bad habit that must stop. Consumerism, in my tribe, is a pursuit into unawareness and is dialectically opposed to nurturing solid families, to coming together in playful deliberation, and to stewardship of our world.
My tribe is also prone to addiction. It is a habit, often appearing as a series of rituals. Addiction comes in many forms, from chemical to social to sexual. But it has one thing in common, it is the seeking to substitute positive feelings for negative ones, and is most evident in the needs for instant gratification. My tribe exhibits certain rituals that mask underlying addiction because the addictions are intertwined with other, seemingly healthy drives. Nicotine addiction is associated with healthy moments of rest and relaxation, and even the social “Hey, let’s go for a smoke!” character of sociability. The same goes for alcohol consumption. Sexual addiction can be commonly associated with the attempt to overcome feelings of loneliness and low self-worth. Most notably, addiction to social media, and particularly looking at our phones is a key indicator of addiction to the dopamine hits derived by such activity. My tribe has a tendency to addiction, and have a tendency to run away from negative emotions. They are current, and can be often found in comedy clubs listening to people who help them laugh at their problems. My tribe playfully deliberates about issues of common concern, but has a tendency to waft towards frivolity or bitterness.
The last ritual I want to highlight is fragmentation. It perhaps cuts a little deeper than the rest because, if it is possible to imagine, fragmentation runs through every facet of our lives. This might be more substance than ritual. We aim for isolation from others, whether that be in academic departments, work specializations, personal habits, or even theologically to the idea of a “personal relationship with God”. My tribe has a tendency to think that they alone are responsible for all circumstances of their lives, and the evidence of this ritual is increased fear and anxiety. Individuation for my tribe is commonly believed to be isolationism. The tendency to believe it is all “up to me” leads to hours spent on the internet, drinking alone, apathy towards issues of citizenship, breakdowns in relationships and family, online shopping, and the explosion of pornography and conspiracy theories. Fragmentation leads to phrases like “I just feel like it”, “Just Do It”, and a whole host of other more narcissistic behaviors. My tribe has the tendency to believe “the world is my oyster”, when in their more deliberate moments, they understand that they are not their own. Without fragmentation, my tribe may in fact slow their tendencies to consumerism and addiction.
Who is my tribe?
I am tempted to name my tribe, but I won’t. Instead, I want to highlight particular members. I had a long and interesting discussion in a taxi while I was living in Busan, South Korea. The driver was an ex-monk, and he also had his PhD in chemistry. I asked him why, a man with his obvious wisdom and expertise was driving a taxi. He replied, “There is no better way to spend a day than to help someone with their day, and to have a good conversation on the way. Driving a taxi always helps me to stay present.” He is part of my tribe, even though I haven’t seen him since.
There are a group of Christians in Chiang Mai, Thailand who belong to a relatively poor church. When I needed financial help due to medical bills for my child, the church gave their entire surplus money to us to help. In contrast to the rich church in Korea who decided not to help, this group of Christians and the members therein are part of my tribe. We have since returned the financial favour.
There is my Palestian former colleague living in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a single father, who identifies as Muslim, but has maintained an arms-length relationship with all Muslim institutions. He writes poetry, and criticizes democracy. He is part of my tribe.
There are a number of neurologically diverse individuals I have come across in my daily life, whether as friend, mentor, teacher or otherwise. They process information differently than the majority. One such individual readily acknowledged that she, a Canadian mother of 3, was “freaking weird”, and needed to “touch love” for it to be real to her. I couldn’t comprehend it. But she told me that love is a rose, and that if she held onto it too tightly, it hurt. She needed to touch it gently. Ever since then I have understood love as having texture. She is part of my tribe.
There is a girl who draws anime pictures. She consistently says that the life in her head is much more interesting than the life outside of it. Her encouragement has helped me remember to be imaginative. She is part of my tribe.
There is another American man, who is a Native Teacher at an international school in Vietnam, who has travelled to many more countries than I. He has great marijuana stories, awesome tattoos, and is often overtaken by laughter fits. He makes fun of my bad dancing, and believes literature is important. He is part of my tribe.
And there are all those former students across the world, in Canada, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Italy, Colombia, Spain, El Salvador, Honduras, India, Pakistan… Kurdish and Iranian, Australian and American, Hungarian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and South African. All of those who are located toward a particular local, by oriented beyond that. You also are a part of my tribe.
The former philosophy and history majors, whom I met with over beer, listening to jazz. You also are a part of my tribe. The artists of the heart who create images that reflect our own selves, the performers who portray common tragedy or comedy, you are part of my tribe.
The yoga instructor, the monk, the kid wearing the Che Guevarra shirt: you are part of my tribe. The farmer, the cowboy, the one harvesting that orange: you are part of my tribe. The social worker and teacher, the social activist and peacemaker: you are my tribe.
The indigenous medicine man, the Iroquois matriarch, or Jim Bearpaw sharing tobacco with me: you are my tribe. But last and not least, the old Christian man, from my hometown, you know, the one who’d make Greta Thunberg wear a thorny crown. You helped me emerge, that’s true. But to be in my tribe, there’s work to do. I am not quite there to forgive your us and them. And I need my tribe to help me with this one.