In February 1992, I left the USA to go live in Europe. I started out in Germany and then went to England to do an MA. I stayed. In October 2000, I moved back to the USA to do human rights and anti-racism work. I lasted 18 months and returned to London. Fast forward to summer 2013. It wasn’t really planned, but I returned to the USA and this time it feels like I might have moved back to create a home here for a significant amount of time.
I have regularly been coming back to the USA while living in the UK. I slip easily (to my dismay, sometimes) back into my midwestern accent. For almost twenty years, I was living in a country where English is the dominant language and where most of the people are White and Christian (which is the demographic of the town where I grew up in the USA). In other words, I rarely felt totally distanced or detached from life in the USA – though there were no shortages of very significant social and political differences, i.e. the National Health Service in the UK is radically different to USA healthcare systems.
Despite my regular returns to these shores and my living in a not so radically different country, I’m in a state of shock by being back here.
I am continually trying to make sense of life in these United States (to borrow from a Reader’s Digest title). Of course, with our wondrously diverse population, many different lives are lived out here. However, I do speculate that the vast majority of people living in the USA are strongly impacted by a small number of narratives. I am constantly talking with people to try and get clarity on these narratives, these story lines that are woven into our lives and shape our culture.
In the past couple of weeks, I think I have arrived at a greater understanding of one of them.
This prevalent story begins with the nuclear family – our immediate relatives of parents and siblings. We have ritual to bring us into wider tribe, e.g. pledge of allegiance at school or the national anthem at a baseball game or the baseball game itself. Yet, our primary tribe seems to be this nuclear family or that has at least been the ideal, the aspiration. The fenced-in house with one family in it and maybe even a dog or cat. Definitely, this was a dominant image of the USAmerican dream when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.
And it seems that in the USA, many people very early on (and I’m not at all being scientific here, I’m speculating – BIG TIME) acquire a fear. They become afraid of being rejected by tribe. This fear might start within this nuclear family. It then expands out into the other communities-families we inhabit. This fear is cultivated in our school system. Going to school becomes about popularity and fitting in, about doing better than one another because that makes you more worthy of being a member of the tribe.
The fear of getting kicked out of tribe is a powerful one. Back in our early days as a species, getting kicked out of tribe meant death. You couldn’t survive alone in the wilderness. You would very quickly die.
These days, I’m not sure it is much different. Despite the emphasis in the USA on the lone ranger (who wasn’t lone at all, was he? but that is by the by), the independent individual and the primacy of the nuclear family looking after itself, we cannot live alone and in isolation. People may not quickly die physically. Instead, we die slow spiritual deaths. Spirit refers to animating life force. Isolated and alone -even when surrounded by people – we become half alive, less of who we can be as living and breathing creatures capable of consciousness and autonomy. We are slowly suffocated. Some of us can be described as sleep-walkers. Others as zombies – the walking dead.
Many people (yes, yes, still speculating BIG TIME) grow up in the USA desperate to be in tribe. We adapt all sorts of behaviors to ensure we aren’t kicked out – be it by our nuclear family or our peers in one community or another. Or we create tribes. And often these tribes are rooted not in love, but in the fear and sense of worthlessness that unconsciously led us to create them or be drawn to them in the first place.
At the heart of this desperation, is the nagging sense that we are not good enough and not worthy of belonging. The vast self-help industry in the USA has much of its foundation rooted in the existence of this widespread condition: fear of, or sense of, abandonment and rejection and the accompanying sense of worthlessness. At its root, I get the impression we could also interpret this condition as a fear of not being loved or loveable. We believe we are going to get kicked out of tribe or have been kicked out of tribe because we are not worthy of tribal love.
Chicano artivist Israel Franscico Haros Lopez and I recently started talking about this subject. We began to explore how it is that in other cultures – ones we often label ‘traditional’ – the sense of belonging is deeply instilled in the human being from birth. This sense of belonging extends well beyond a nuclear family and even beyond a tribe of people. This sense of belong extends to all creation. In some cultures, my life as a human being is understood to be interconnected with all life – before and after I came into being.
In summer 2013, I had an experience walking in the mountains, while visiting the Peñasco Theater Collective, of sensing that I am from the earth upon which I was walking and from the sun that was shining on my face. My blood and bones are made of the food my mother ate, which is grown in the land, which was fertilized by who knows what animals, which contains the blood and bones of who knows what creatures, which gave rise to plants and trees and all sorts that fed on the sun and the water. Like that I am one with all creation – before I was born, while I am a live, and after I die.
When I experienced this sense, I felt an astonishing sense of security through connectedness. My then anxiety-riddled self breathed a sigh of relief, felt at ease and gave rise to the thought: “My gosh, how can I ever think I’m alone when I am made up of and connected to so much!”
Admittedly, that belief can be too abstract at times to offer up comfort. It does, however, put me in my place as being no more no less than a tree or a piece of dirt. But I won’t go further into this idea, which is related but different fodder for another blog post – the inflated sense of self people often create in the USA, as a reaction to their overwhelming sense of worthlessness and their fear of being rejected by tribe.
Ahh, yes, let me return to this story of abandonment and rejection.
I have this sense that many of us living here in the USA show up in our lives fueled by this sense of worthlessness and this fear of deadly rejection and abandonment. And this fear and self-rejection is constantly toyed with, taken advantage of and even cultivated by people in positions of power within our systems – political, economic and social. In short, from birth to death, we are encouraged to stay afraid and to strive for worthiness and acceptance and affirmation through superficial means, e.g., status, money, power over others, submission to others. We end up constantly grasping for that-which-will-save-us-or-keep-us-alive.
Like this, the average teen-ager in the USA (and often the average adult) seeks to construct a distinct identity – figure out “Who am I” while also trying to understand what it takes to survive, to stay in tribe. And when the individual does not have a way of connecting with a sense of belonging to something larger than their own life and experience, they look to the world around them for clues and for affirmation. A fundamental question for people here, starting at a young age and often carrying on through adulthood is: What do I need to do or how do I need to be in order to be loved, valued and accepted by tribe?
Israel and I contrasted this with other cultures where the teenager’s primary question might instead be: What is my role in this tribe, in this community? What is my fundamental purpose to serve us all? As an adult, the question lingers: How can I serve the tribe better? People ask these questions while having a firm sense of belonging to and interconnectedness not just with tribe, but with all of creation, with ancestors and with spirits (animating life forces) that are beyond the reach of our five basic senses.
I say this, aware that in some so-called traditional communities, people experience oppression doled out in the name of the collective or in the name of cultural-traditional norms. I mention this point because I don’t want the narrative I’m trying to highlight here to be missed or tossed aside because your attention is now focusing on making a challenge to me: You are romanticizing communities that have strong roots in the collective (as opposed to the individual).
I’m doing no such thing – but I won’t go into that subject further.
Instead, I want to bring your attention back to the narrative. Back to a story of the fear of abandonment and rejection, a story of a desire to be loved, wanted, deemed worthwhile to belong to tribe and thus allowed to live. When we are fear-full and grasping for a sense of worth, we tend to wear either the hat of oppressor or oppressed. We, the people of the United States of America, are prone to being in fight or flight mode – to being jittery and insecure grasping to be saved or to exert power.
My, my, what wretched state of being. And what an awful condition for democracy.
Which is why, I want to pose questions that I, Israel and others I’ve been talking with about in relation to this story: What rites of passage and cultural norms do we need to create here in the USA for young people -whatever their background- to be able to embody an intrinsic sense of belonging and connection with community, tribe, planet and forces bigger than their and all our tiny selves? How do we, the people of the United States of America, live into a different story? How do we transform from a culture of fear and self-loathing (when a sense of worthlessness is taken to the extreme) into a culture of love, acceptance and unconditional belonging?