This weekend I participated my third women’s medicine circle; the same group has been meeting every three months—spanning the wheel of the year. The experience of sisterhood has been powerful for me, voyaging deep into risky territory in a community of trust. I didn’t have a sister, or girlfriends, and my mother was not a female role model. Now I have strong women in my life who are anchors, soul-mates, but they’re all over the damn planet. This circle is the intentional creation of an immediate sisterhood, and damn, it’s powerful.
It’s risky to open the vulnerable places, the old wounds, the fierce hopes that seem just out of reach. If you didn’t have a beloved grandmother whose lap was a safe haven, if you don’t have a big gaggle of brothers and sisters, if you don’t have a tight-knit group of friends, then this is one way to go. Create your own circle of trust.
It’s possible to learn how to weave the web of connectedness. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And necessary. There are so many forces that are bent on separating us into small isolated units, walled about by suspicion and envy, and it takes a lot of oomph to negate that.
My hunch is that it starts best with small groups. Mass marches and demonstrations make a big point, for a short time. Smaller groups where faces are familiar and trust is possible may take us farther. We need community, and we need it now. Small steps make journeys.
According to Wikipedia, it’s “a group of distinct people, dependent on their land for their livelihood, who are largely self-sufficient, and not integrated into the national society.” Another definition: “any aggregate of people united by ties of descent from a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.” Another: “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.” But like most words—for example love—its meaning is specific to its user, though it may sometimes shift radically, sometimes day by day.
What brings this to mind, of course, is the emergence of white supremacists from the shadows. And the calls for our leaders to denounce them. I’m all for denunciation if it makes anyone feel better, but in my view it won’t make an ounce of difference in their fortunes.
I see these groups—for that matter, all manifestations of the far Right—as a pathetic and vile response to a very real need. That need is no less real, no less deep than of those on the Left, or of any group of sports fans, subcultures, soldiers, actors, gangbangers, terrorists, therapy circles, churchgoers, frat boys—name your coffee klatch.
The need is to be part of a tribe. To belong. To be with people of a common purpose. To be respected for playing your role. We evolved that way, and despite the inroads of individuality—whether ascribed to capitalism, democratic idealism, literary Romanticism, or liberation movements (themselves offering “tribe”)—the urge has the force of gravity, and like that law it’s hard to revoke.
As the strength of traditional group identities has diminished—weakening of family ties, the fracturing of neighborhoods, cultural diffusion, job insecurity, etc.—we still look for something to be part of. That’s a dynamic that can produce lovely effects, and otherwise.
“Why do they vote against their own interests?” is a mantra of the Left. Well, why does a squad of soldiers risk death? For the money? Because they like to kill? Because they have a magical belief that they won’t get shot? I doubt it. Each guy is acting against his own best interest—to stay alive—and yet he’s part of a team that depends on him, that gives him kinship and value. Arguments don’t easily sway that. Similarly, protesting police brutality may sway official policies, but it hasn’t been shown to change the tribal culture of the cops on the ground.
To me, there’s a profound ethical difference between the KKK and Antifa groups, but they both gain their gravitational cohesion through a tribal identity and their force through rage. Other groupings may not have the rage factor, but there are many levels of fanaticism: a Red Sox fan may not want the Yankees to die, but you won’t argue him out of his fandom.
To break an individual free from his “tribe,” what’s probably required is something equivalent to the use of methadone for heroin addiction: something that still offers addiction, only different. Or throw a better party than the other guys. And send the invitations in wording they can grasp.