April 25, 2010

Tribes: our need for community

I’m in the tribe.

I’ve been riding a motorcycle for about 3 years now and it has changed me in many ways.  I’m more cautious, I’m a better car driver, I’m more present and in the moment, I’m mildly more mindful (though I still tend to misplace my keys on an almost daily basis), and I have a new family.

You see, whenever I ride – esp. when riding on the outskirts of town, as I tool down the road, there will always be several fellow motorcyclists who are heading toward me and about 2/3 of them give me “the sign.”   Maybe you’ve seen it.  One motorcyclist takes his left hand from off the handlebar then casually lowers it down toward the road at a 45% angle and holds 2 fingers out.  The oncoming rider sees this and the responds by giving the same hand gesture back.

This hand signal symbolizes “Hey there, fellow rider!  Nice day for a ride!” and it also means “Take it easy!” and – most importantly, “Keep your two tires on the ground!” (a.k.a. – “Keep the rubber side down!”).  It’s basically a form of greeting, well-wishing, and solidarity building.

The closest thing I’ve experienced to this in the past was when I lived in rural Iowa for a couple of years as a circuit rider who moonlighted as an adjunct instructor at a small liberal arts college.  In Decatur County, Iowa (and in much of the rest of that state) people walking down the street always say hello to each other, male drivers give female drivers the right of way at intersections, and male drivers (esp. if they’re driving a pick-up truck) often acknowledge each other as they pass each other on the road by lifting two fingers off of the steering wheel in a sort of low-key, masculine wave/salute.

But this motorcyclist thing has a stronger element of tribal behavior involved.  Motorcyclists realize that we’re a small percentage of the population and what unites us is a certain love of freedom and a specific risky life-style choice.  We share a common experience of being basically invisible and vulnerable to “cagers” (people who drive cars) – as well as to being prone to getting bugs in our teeth, road debris splashed on us, etc.  Come to think of it, it’s a bit like the surfer tribe I’ve seen in California – and indeed, they have their own hand gesture – the “hang 10” sign with thumb and pinky upright and spread out.

You’d think that the rock-climbers here in Colorado might have their own sign – but they don’t.  Climbers tend to be more introverted and/or self-focused compared to surfers or bikers.  That’s probably the thing about climbing that holds me back from doing it more – the obvious lack of community spirit.

Anyway, the other thing that comes to mind when I think about tribal signs of solidarity is a practice employed by the early Christians.  The earliest Christians were a persecuted group – and that is an understatement.  Because they asserted that Jesus is Lord – and that Caesar isn’t, they were often found dying on the side of the road nailed to crosses, shoved onto spikes, or turned into human torches to light up the roadways at night.  Talk about an “extreme” lifestyle choice!

Now, they weren’t exactly hoping to end up affixed to wooden beams so they created a way of determining if they were talking to a “friendly” or to an untrustworthy outsider.   A Christian would be speaking to someone who they didn’t know and then during the course of conversation, s/he would trace a half oval into the dirt with the tip of their foot.  If the other person were also a Christian, they would respond by casually tracing the other half of the oval – but not connecting the ends on one side, so that it ended up looking like a fish – which was an early symbol for Jesus.   I understand the lesbian community used to have a similar sort of “shibboleth” test; i.e. asking someone “if they like seafood.”

I suppose it could be said that evangelical Christians in the U.S. continue this practice to a degree.  It’s rather common to see silver colored fish symbols on the backside of cars – though it hardly has the same subversive, counter-cultural dynamic as with the early Christians.  And if you look through the yellow pages of the phone book, you’ll notice similar fish symbols in the ad boxes for various services; plumbers, mechanics, electricians, etc.   That symbol is there to tell evangelical Christians that those are businesses which they might want to support and it may tell others that those are businesses which will treat you ethically and do right by you (though I suppose they might tell some people to avoid those places like the plague for fear of someone attempting to save/convert them).

The word “religion” comes to us from the latin religare which means to bind together.  At their best, religions help unite diverse people groups in ways that satisfy and meet deep inner needs.  Ironically, religion has become something that tends to divide rather than unite people.  However, it is my belief that if people from differing religions, and non-religions, can transcend their differences and focus upon what they share in common – unity of some sort can be attained.  I think we should strive for it.

I guess the reason I’m babbling on about all of this is because I am pretty darned happy about having this new sense of community, solidarity, and fellowship in my life – even if it is a fleeting thing that takes place at 30-75 mph.  But it’s also causing me to yearn for more of that sort of feeling among the rest of the citizens who I share this lovely city with.

Boulder is a great town in many ways – but, and I say this lovingly, on the whole, the people here are the most self-centered, self-absorbed, individualistic, anti-community sorts of folks I’ve ever encountered.  It’s almost like they’re allergic to it.  Yeah, there are plenty of pockets and subgroups where kindred spirits may flock together – rock climbers, trance dancers, organic raw fooders, meditators, yoga practitoners,  non-profit directors, bohemian patchooliers, hard-core bicyclists, etc. –  but –sheesh, there is an obvious social void here and it truly needs to be filled.  In my experience, there is very little effort made toward community building in, or after, most yoga classes or meditation sessions.  It seems more of a thing where individuals pop in for 60 minutes and then split afterward back into the bubbles of their individual lives.

My best-friend Brian Saeger is a yoga teacher and he notices the same thing about Boulder.  He notices that the folks who do yoga tend to be very self-focused and he feels compelled to try to create a sense of community in every class that he teaches.  He’s even thinking about hosting “yoga-potlucks”.

As for me, hosting house concerts (“The Separation of Church & Stadium” series) seems to be my primary way of trying to fill this void.

How about the rest of you?  What sorts of things do you find helpful in building community?  What binds you with others?

I consider the regular readers of my blogs as being part of my tribe so, let me consider all of you as honorary fellow bikers:

–   keep the rubber side down!


(aka Rog, BrotherRog, or Raja Daja to those in my inner tribe)

to learn more about one of my tribes see: Wesley Hit me up on Facebook, Myspace, or LinkedIn to learn about others.

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