In a recent post to his blog – Jack’s Winning Words – Jack Freed shared this quote – “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.” (Rudyard Kipling)
We all struggle to some extent with the need to be an individual while living within the “tribal” space defined by our society. One could look to the TV show Alone to see the consequences of really living outside of the support system that the tribe (society) provides us all. Even in that TV reality series the contestants were allowed to take with them some of the things that are only available to us all because of the societies in which we live. Still, the conclusion that all of the contestants eventually come to is that they’d much rather be back with the tribe.
For most of us the struggle to retain an individual identity within our societal structure does not involve being isolated in some far flung corner of the world. For the most part, our decisions about what we should or will do involve the decisions that we make about obeying or ignoring the rules of that the society has put in place, which we call laws. Most of the time obeying the laws is a no-brainer, since many of them were put into place to protect us from some common danger or to provide some common good for all. Sometimes obeying a specific law may seem to be a personal inconvenience, given whatever circumstances brought you to the point of having to make a decision about obeying them or ignoring them. Stop signs, no turn on red signs and don’t walk until you are told you can walk instructions are examples of widely ignored rules (laws) that people make conscious decisions to ignore from time to time.
Religion is another area in which we make conscious decisions about what to accept and what to ignore or at least not honor in our everyday lives. The “tribe”, in the case of religion, is the church or denomination of the church. Each separate denomination has created its own set of rules and interpretations of the beliefs upon which religion is built. Perhaps the church was way ahead of the current administration in Washington in its use of the concept of “alternative facts”. Even the Bible, upon which all of the Christian denominations base their beliefs, has been subject to repeated changes and interpretations by various tribes within the Christian religion. There is a common core of beliefs that runs throughout Christianity; but, upon that core various tribal split-offs have imposed their own set of rules and interpretations. There is Yiddish proverb that I saw on Jack’s blog that probably applies to that – “God created a world full of many little worlds.” Maybe that proverb was created to describe the fragmented little tribes that Christianity has evolved into.
I think the little saying that we started with today was referencing the need to maintain some level of individual thinking and decision making to avoid being swept away by society (the tribe) into something that we may not want or with which we may not agree. When we are young children, we tend to “learn” how to fit in and do what is right by watching others and imitating them. We certainly get lots of advice from parents about what is right or wrong and whether how we are acting is good or bad.
At some point in our growing up phase (sometime pre-teen but almost always in the teen years) almost everyone hits that point where they start to rebel against some things that they are being told to do or about being told how to act. For some that rebellion may manifest itself in their appearance and for some in their choice of friends or behavior when in tribal (societal) settings. For some the rebellion never really takes hold and the mantra of “go along to get along” becomes their way of life. For all of us, the need to continually make personal decisions on the choices that life presents means that we are forever evolving as individuals.
The struggle to find your own identity is always going to be a balancing act between the things that you accept from the rules of the tribe (Society) and the things that seem important enough to you to cause you to go against the rules or mores of the tribe, or at least a part of the tribe. That’s where the Yiddish proverb comes in handy. It turns out that we don’t live “alone”; we live in lots of little worlds or tribes and we may even be able to be members of several of those tribes (worlds). In today’s worlds there is an attempt to define membership in simplistic terms such as “us and them.” Members of each little world try to compartmentalize one as for or against something and allow little to no room for a middle ground. The decisions about which worlds to live in are what we struggle with to define ourselves as individuals. Those same decisions contribute greatly to what we call character in people.
Perhaps, as you struggle with defining what being you means, the most helpful thing to keep in mind is that being you and having your own opinions about things is not necessarily a matter of right and wrong. It is a matter of making personal choices for yourself. Others may, and will, make different choices and you need to accept that this is OK, too. If you look for them at all, you will see that, even people with diametrically opposed views from yours on some things, at the same time share many of the choices that you made when you accepted membership in the larger tribe (society) that you both live in. We have a term for accepting the differences that may exist without rancor – civility. If you extend civility to others, you will likely receive it in return; and, you will find that you can still be an individual within the context of the tribe.
Being a member of the tribe (society) need not overwhelm you, but it does provide some useful boundaries and guideline about what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior, if one wishes to remain a member of the tribe and not to be alone. Young people in their rebellious phase often experience hard bumps into those boundaries and learn lessons about life “the hard way.” We all will continue to bump into laws, rules, ordinances, restrictions and other barriers to doing whatever we want to do as we age. If we are civil about those encounters we will likely be able to find a way to be happy as individuals and stay within the tribe.
Have a great journey on the trip to discover who you are. Maybe I’ll see you along the way. Stop in and visit my little world.