Tag Archives: tribe

A sense of direction

When I dedicated to the bard path, I promised to use my creativity for the good of my tribe and the good of the land. The land part has always been easy to identify, if hard to protect in this exploitative, destructive age. ‘Tribe’ has always been trickier. Who are my tribe? Who should I be helping and supporting? Where can I do most good? I’ve put myself forward in Pagan groups, in politics, and I’ve stepped up to try and help fellow authors and creatives, all of this in paid and unpaid configurations. I’ve been looking for a tribe to serve.

It’s tricky. I need to work in ways that achieve something and that I feel good about. I’ve fallen out of a few spaces along the way simply because I didn’t have the resources or information to be able to do anything well, and the frustration of it ground me down.  Creativity depends on inspiration, and volunteering depends on energy, and I am more motivated by results than anything else. I’ve fallen out of some spaces because of internal politics, and I’m not good at dealing with people who are afraid I will become too prominent and important, and for whom keeping me under control is more important than getting good things done. I’ve fallen out of spaces through sheer boredom as well.

What I want is to build community, sustainability, and resilience. I want to help people flourish and do more good. I want more joy and better things for as many people as I can manage to bring that to.

I knew at the start of this year that I’d likely be picking a place to stand – or a few places. I’ve eyed up various groups and I’ve waited to see who made moves towards me. It’s been an interesting six months, and at this point, I feel I know where I’m going. I’m building a worker’s co-operative around the Hopeless Maine project. I’m putting more energy into Moon Books, and Sloth Comics. I shall carry on volunteering for The Pagan Federation and The Woodland Trust and writing for all the magazines I’ve been writing for. I shall be investing more energy in Transition Stroud as well – this is about transitioning to more sustainable ways of living.

I’ve learned not to work with people who are half hearted about me, or grudgingly make a place for me. I’ve also learned not to work with people who simply see me as a resource to exploit. You can’t build better things if what’s going around you is crap. You can’t bring good into the world if the project you’re in is inherently unethical in how it gets things done. None of us benefit from being treated like objects for use. Breaking people for causes isn’t good, and making personal influence more important than the cause isn’t good either. But all of that said, many good spaces exist full of people intent on doing the best they can with what they have, and those are the places that deserve energy invested in them and that reward you if you give what you can. In such a space, giving what you can becomes rewarding of itself.

Those who remain

A bit back, I spent some time exploring possible alternative story shapes to the hero’s journey. At the end of the journey, the hero comes back with the new shiny thing – be that an object, a power, or an insight. Then the hero has to persuade the rest of the tribe that the new shiny thing has value, and sometimes, this is the hardest bit of the whole journey. Can the tribe accommodate the hero’s experience? They probably can’t understand him, they may resist change, or resent his ideas.

I think it’s worth pondering the journey of those who remain. For a start, if no one stays put, there is no closing act of the hero coming home. There is no home to come back to. The tradition and resistance the hero might struggle with, is also the thing that will hold his innovation ready for some future hero to have a problem with it.

Those who remain may have made heroic journeys at some previous time. However, those who remain as a choice, who make their journey through the same landscape day by day, still make a journey and their role is an important one. To be honest, this is a role I identify with far more than that of the wandering hero. My inclination is to stay, to put down roots, craft community and have a space for the wanderers to come back to.

Staying does not oblige me to resent those who travel. I do not have to be jealous of their journeys, nor need I feel threatened by them. I can be open to the stories and insights they bring back, and I can listen and bear witness when they reach the end of a particular journey and need to unload. For me this is not a hypothetical thing. As we develop a tribe in the valleys of Stroud, I notice that many of my people are adventurers, going forth repeatedly into the world to make their journeys and coming back with tales to tell. Not usually the world altering revelations of the official hero’s journey, but change nonetheless.

Many good things happen when we can embrace the domestic side of this story. The tribe the wandering hero returns to need not be resentful and unable to understand. The tribe may be full of people who have also wandered, and so do in fact get what it means to go away and come back again. Being the tribe, being the bit that stays at home need not be equated with narrow mindedness or disinterest. We do not have to be the final challenge to be overcome on a hero’s journey. We can thus point the way to the possibility of heroic journeys that are not conflict orientated, and that do not have to be struggle at every turn.

Pagan Community, Pagan Service

In a traditional community, it is normal for people to invest effort and resources in things that benefit others, safe in the knowledge that everyone else is doing it too and the aim is group survival. When we talk about Pagan communities, we don’t usually mean groups of people who are dependent on each other in an ongoing way. What we get instead are a mix of economically driven interactions, and volunteer interactions.

In a traditional community, entitlement is part of the mix. You are entitled to partake of other people’s successes, creativity and resources. They are entitled to partake of yours. This is fine – it creates flow where good things move from those who have plenty to those who are lacking. Everyone contributes what they can when they can, and you trust that it balances out, and you take pride in looking after those who cannot, for whatever reason, look after themselves.

There’s no shortage of that same sense of entitlement in modern Pagan communities. We often feel entitled to benefit from the work of others, and can be resistant to paying them anything for that work. We make huge demands of our volunteers. All too often what we don’t have is a sense of responsibility to go alongside that entitlement, and this is something of a problem.

Sometimes it works out well – I think Mark Graham’s Druid Camp is a case in point here. There are people who buy tickets, and people who work for tickets, people who contribute to ticket sales such that they get paid. Rainbow, who provide the infrastructure, are also paid. There’s a real effort to make sure that no one feels exploited, that everyone gets a good exchange experience from the balance of what they are asked to put in and what is available to them.

However, I’ve been in plenty of other spaces where it didn’t go like this. Where working a ticket caused problems and wasn’t respected, so that volunteers ended up having to pay to participate. I’ve seen volunteers taken for granted, and I’ve seen outlandish beliefs about money being paid to people who, in reality, barely had their expenses covered. I’ve seen people charging outrageously for what they do, as well. I’ve seen people pay celebrants generously in relation to their own resources, and I’ve seen people think they were entitled to have that celebrant work for free – because we’re a community and that’s how it should be. I’ve seen people think the community owes them support and adoration, and I’ve seen people who deserved support not getting it.

Partly this is because we are not really living in tribes. Sometimes we like to use the language of tribe, but as we are not mutually dependent on each other, we don’t have a tribal relationship. We aren’t entitled to each other’s service because we are not obliged to provide service in return.

As individuals, we can pay attention to what we contribute – in any form, and what we seek in return. We can look at the flows of energy we participate in, and we can look at how that impacts on other people. To get this right as a ‘community’ all we need is for enough individuals to be thinking honourably and carefully about how energy and resources and opportunities and demands flow between people. (Borrowing Cat Treadwell’s famous battle cry) What are you doing?

The size of a tribe

It is my understanding that generally people are wired up to be able to cope with social interactions between a group of 150 people. It’s an average, and like all averages there will be people to whom, one way or another and for whatever reasons, it does not apply. It is however a place to start from. How many people do you regularly deal with, through work, neighbourhood, family, social engagements… because of course back when we were tribal peoples, there wasn’t this weird distinction between different interactions with different groups of people in the same way. Pre-industrial revolution in fact, we peasants played, reproduced, worked and struggled alongside our neighbours. Pre-cars most of us had more connectivity to the people around us.

And then there’s internet. It is both a blessing and a curse in terms of the scope for breadth and depth of interaction. I’m married to a man I met online and some of my closest relationships depend to at least some degree on maintenance by ether, but there’s a lot of you out there.

Some weeks ago now, I had a meltdown. It happens. I was exhausted and I’d just had a run of messing up. I’d massively annoyed someone, and couldn’t work out if I needed to feel responsible over that. I’d forgotten an important historical detail while dealing with someone I care about. I panicked. In the process of stepping away from that and looking at what had happened, I realised a thing: I’m dealing with a lot of people.

In a normal week, I will interact with hundreds of different people. Local people, authors, random people on social media, friends, people I’ve run into somewhere, business contacts, bloggers, and so on and so forth. For that to work I have to remember who they are and what we have in common and what we talked about last time and what their issues are and who they don’t get on with and what offends them and all the other things.

Now, it’s possible to do this well with a handful of close connections. Trying to hold that level of detail and information-intimacy with truly hundreds of people some of whom I seldom communicate with… that’s tough. There are things about how I work and what I do that make it necessary, or at least useful, and when I can pull it off, this ability to handle a ‘tribe’ of excessive proportions certainly has its advantages, but what I realised is that I need to cut myself some slack if I can’t remember a conversation from a year ago, or if I make a mistake and someone is offended by that.

I can’t magically know everything, and that’s pointed to some much bigger issues. I’ve been places where I’ve been expected to magically know things I had no way of knowing, and been punished for failing to be psychic enough. I don’t have to carry on doing that to myself in the hopes of staying ahead of people who would otherwise cheerfully hurt me. What I need to do instead is have less to do with anyone who demands perfection of me, be more alert to unreasonable demands (mine and other people’s) and recognise that I actually have a really good memory for people related stuff, but I frequently push beyond its limits. I have to stop trying to be omniscient, it’s exhausting as well as being entirely beyond me.

Outside the tribe

Last week, Angharad wrote a really challenging and brilliant post about the language of tribe and othering. It is not an easy read. It is easy to look at something like this and say, ‘ah yes, other people are getting it wrong again,’ and to assume that I am ok. I admit my first response was to assume it wasn’t about me. On reflection, it is at least as much me as anyone else. You can read the original post here – https://incidentaldruidry.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/belonging/

I know why it happens. Anger and frustration at what the mainstream does, this sleepwalking into environmental disaster, this system that favours the rich and punishes the vulnerable, these habits of ever greater consumption… There have been plenty of times when talking about greener living and cultural change, when I have clearly made people who don’t agree with me very uncomfortable indeed.

Is that acceptable, given what I understand to be at stake here? On my good days, I try to do it more gently, with alternatives and examples rather than howling. But how does that read? A bit smug, possibly. A bit ‘see what a good Druid I am.’ If the affect of any post of mine is just to persuade people that I am better than them, then I have failed.

The uncomfortable truth is, that I do want to put some people firmly outside my tribe. The exploiters, the frackers, the pro-austerity and anyone else using their wealth and power to beat up someone who has less wealth and power. This is not my tribe, and I want to draw a ring around it, and if I could literally will the worst offending planet killers out of existence, I would do so without hesitation.

I’m conscious of how Cat Treadwell has been posting about her chaplaincy work, and not giving up on people, and I admire her courage and generosity. I don’t think I could do that. I recognise that I can be quite a judgemental person, and that I am capable of considerable anger. I acknowledge that I would not put so much effort into living the way I do, if I did not consider those choices to be in some way superior to other choices. That has implications for how I think about other people. Whether I assume social conditioning, lack of care, personal greed or lack of understanding informs what they do, I still judge.

We are killing the planet, and so many people who could do differently carry on seeking their own amusement and will not change in any way because their ‘in the moment’ happiness is held as more important than the consequences. I don’t know how to be anything other than judgemental in face of that – silence, seems to be about the best there is. I don’t know how not to feel angry, and afraid of what is happening to our world. There are plenty of days when any disrespectful name for the wilfully oblivious seems tempting. Aware also that I justify my own less than perfectly green choices, the computer, the shortcomings in my shopping, the many, many things I do not do well, and do not do better. If I criticise behaviour – and I often do – then more often than not I cause hurt and offence to someone, based on the feedback I get. While I might separate behaviour from personhood, the person hearing me cannot be assumed to be so cool about the distinctions.

The conclusion that I am coming to, is that I certainly have no right to other anyone else, no right to exclude, and that I need to watch myself for overtly offensive language. I will stand outside of the mainstream, not by trying to exclude anything too mainstream from an imaginary and non-existent ‘tribe’ but by recognising that I am the one stood on the outside, shouting into the wind, for whatever good that might do anyone.

Questions of Belonging

A few days ago I blogged from a state of despair about issues of tribe. It elicited some incredibly helpful comments. Thank you all of you who shared and inspired me. On the same day, I read Naomi’s blog about how we handle difference and exclusion in Paganism. I spent time wondering if I inadvertently exclude anyone, and if so, what to do about it. I realised I probably won’t know unless someone comes back and tells me, at which point I would hope to have opportunity to put it right. All too often, people are excluded because they are asked to fit in with whatever is ‘normal’, and no room is made for difference and quite often, that turns out to be important.

For my entire life, until this week, I have been operating under the mistaken belief that if I did a good enough job of fitting in and being useful, these things would ultimately lead to my having a sense of belonging. I’ve never really managed it on those terms, but the carrot dangling in front of me, out of reach, has kept me trying. If I could do better, ask for less, want less, give more, be more co-operative, be more flexible and generous… I want to be co-operative and useful, these things matter to me and are part of who I am, but when that becomes an exercise in hiding, crushing or cutting off bits of me, ignoring my own feelings and giving in a way that leaves me threadbare and exhausted, it doesn’t really work for me. It can work for the people benefiting from me, so there’s often encouragement to keep going.

I’ve started to see that the more sacrifices are made in order to fit in, the less it works in terms of belonging. What sense of belonging I have flows from the handful of relationships where I feel accepted. Where I am good enough already, and my oddities are allowed for. The places where, if my fragile mind and sore body aren’t working, I can expect care and compromise. The people who expect to negotiate, not to have it on their terms, who expect that what I want and need might not be exactly what they want and need. From there, we can work out something viable for all involved. The more able I am to bring my emotional responses, odd ideas, intensity, and fragility into a space, the more able I am to feel like I belong. The more masking I have to do to fit in, the less I feel like I belong.

I want to be useful. I want to be an asset to the people around me. I want to bring laughter and cake and good ideas, and support good projects and help other people flourish. This is not about belonging, this is about where I choose to stand. I want to pick my ground and my causes, and have the energy to see them through. I am realising that I am a very finite resource, and if I do not deploy carefully, I will burn out on people who want me to fit in, at the expense of doing the things I might have done well, and that’s just silly. I will be co-operative as much as I am able, but from here on in, that has to be a two sided process. I want to co-operate with people, not bend myself into awkward shapes for people who will not even try to meet me part way.

I need to feel cared for. That means if someone comes back and tells me why I shouldn’t have a problem, shouldn’t feel upset, shouldn’t expect any different… that’s a situation to back out of at speed. I don’t expect things to be smooth and easy, I get things wrong all the time and fully expect people in my life will make mistakes too. Getting it wrong is not a measure of anything. I am going to start expecting people to care enough to listen, to try and find, with me, viable ways forward when things go awry. Not an expectation of being accommodated in all ways, that would be equally unreasonable, but conversation, not a lecture about what I should be. ‘Should be’ is about fitting in, not about belonging.

Without willingness to exchange, listen, negotiate, explain and seek mutual understanding, it’s mostly about fitting in. I’ve had a good look at the few places I don’t feel defeated by how people react to me. Those I will be investing in heart and soul. From now, everything else either makes that grade, or doesn’t get much priority.

No place like home, and other stories

The stories we tell shape us as people and both inform and express the culture we belong to. Those stories aren’t always consciously held nor do we always stop to reflect on the implications of what we tell each other. From our earliest days, people tell us fairy stories full of ideas about what the world could be, and mostly isn’t. As a child I let go of happily ever after and poetic justice fairly early because it was so easy to see those things as unreal. There was one fairy story I held on to for a long time. Putting it down is hard.

It may seem odd to suggest Clive Barker as a writer of fairy stories, but for me, he always was. I came to him in my teens, and under the veneer of horror, found something I had until then been missing: Fairy stories for those who do not fit. Fairy stories for little monsters whose emotions, bodies and minds are not a tidy match for what’s around them. The greatest fairy story of all was of Midian. A home for monsters. A place for the magical, funny looking rejects where there could be home, community and companionship. Where being a little monster qualified you for entry.

I carried that story, and I believed in it as I believed in few others. As a possibility, and a metaphor. I hung on to the belief that somewhere out there was a place, or a tribe that would look at me and say ‘welcome home.’ A tribe that wanted me as I am, and that would be as horrified as I am by the idea of creating a fake shiny surface to fit in. A tribe of wild, open hearted people, not merely unafraid of things being serious and intense, but welcoming that, feeding on it, wanting and needing intensity and meaning as much as I do. A tribe where people think about things, and care, and don’t do as they’re told, and aren’t afraid of difference.

I thought, if it does not exist already, I will build it. I will find those people who dance to other music, and I will hold a space for them, and maybe if I hold that space, I too will be acceptable, I too will belong somewhere.

There is no Midian.

What I thought was a promising space turned into yet another social fail. Yet another wounding experience that sends me scurrying back into my hole, unable to cope with the light. This weekend, had I been able to fake an enthusiasm for sport, there are any number of places I could have shown up for camaraderie. I’d need to be ok about drunken shouting for that, and like Grendal, I find the drunken shouting difficult to take. Although it may be worth mentioning that I’ve never trashed anyone’s mead hall.

There is no Midian, and the fairy story that had given me hope is just another illusion and try as I might, I cannot make it real. I’m very tired this morning. All the other stories, I realise, have us as lone witch women deep in the forest, lone black knights. Outsiders who help insiders work out who they are, because they are not Other. Perhaps belonging is more meaningful if you can see the shadows of those who do not belong and know what is at stake if you do not conform to the requirements of the tribe. Look, act, dress and speak the part, uphold the same values and never question what they do. It’s not the case that if you act out, the wicked witch or the bogeyman will get you, it’s the case that if you fail to fit, that is who you become.

Affirmation politics

I’m just going to assert this because I believe it to be true: Political systems mostly exist to keep power in the same place. Democracy is usually an illusion. Here in the UK, was can vote between the same suited men with the same beliefs who will do a bit more or a bit less of the same things. We do not have a great deal more genuine choice than a Feudal peasant, Eton sends us a steady supply of new masters, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It seems, looking at the international scene, that you can’t have substantial change without bloodshed, and then people who acquire power work out ways of getting more of it.

I think there’s a relationship between the ways in which money makes more money, and power makes more power. To lead, you do not have to deliver for anyone else. You don’t have to solve real problems, or improve quality of life. You do need the PR skills to convince people that you’re less bad than the other suit. We vote for what we find most bearable, because there is so seldom an option to vote for what we want. Overpaid smug bastards strutting about before the cameras talking about the heroic tough choices they are making for the good of the country while children go hungry.

Tribes tend to deliver very different political systems, because there is a much more direct relationship between the ruler and the ruled. You may quite literally all eat at the same table. You bear the consequences together, and you know exactly where the one in charge lives. The smaller your unit, the more answerable your glorious leader is, perhaps requiring them to be more like the chair of a committee in which everyone gets a say, negotiating a way forward everyone can get behind. Or leading with vision, safe in the knowledge that if the vision doesn’t deliver, they’re out of a job. I’m not a bloodthirsty person, anything but… however I can see how the idea of sacrifice kings in times of crisis would keep a ruler on their toes. Tough, heroic hard choices for the good of the tribe do not, in that context, mean letting children go hungry. It will fall to leadership to take the brunt – and that’s a much better system.

Yesterday I talked about affirmation community. The natural extension of that is a small scale politics dependent on affirmation. People have to approve, agree and be willing for the politics of an affirmation culture to work. In an affirmation culture, everyone has their place, it is known, recognised and commented on. People who have a value are not pawns to sacrifice for the greater good – because at that point, the people are the good. There may be times when someone has to step forward and take the risks, put life and wellbeing on the line, but to do that by choice is very different than to be forced into it by a smiling tyrant’s ‘tough choices’.

Affirmation creates a social currency of valuing. If we have that, we will not demonise the vulnerable, or think it acceptable to leave the struggling to die. If we learn to see the best in each other, we won’t find it acceptable to have far more than others. We will want to express value through sharing, and we will want to be valued as someone who possesses virtues like compassion and generosity. In an affirmation culture there is every incentive to want to be seen as a valuable contributor to your society, doing the best you can with what you have. And so a culture that was based on affirmation would have no place for the kinds of parasites who give nothing, but draw wealth towards them and ask other people to do all the work, whilst at the same time devaluing the bent backs on which they stand. Separate ideas of value from stashes of money, and everything changes.

Affirmation – Community

The exchange of affirmation is one of the core features of a viable and self-sustaining community. Without affirmation exchange, you probably have a group defined either by necessity or leadership, which will not survive the loss of either. To make a tribe, I firmly believe that you need to create an affirmation culture.

Affirmation can mean a number of things. Without getting bogged down in detail, here’s a quick list. Respect, gratitude, appreciation, encouragement, praise, compliments. Gestures that convey liking, enjoying, valuing and affection. Recognition that the person is needed, liked, valued, understood, accepted. Some or all of these things need to be expressed to take effect, and everyone must be to some degree involved in the process of affirming everyone else.

If affirmation primarily flows from one person to everyone else, you maybe have a benevolent tyrant, or a guru. Anyone excluded from affirmation will not get to feel like they are part of the tribe. In loose collections of people this can be a reasonable way of removing people who don’t fit. In families, is tends to be emotionally damaging for the unacceptable one. Equally, anyone who is not allowed to give affirmation is automatically afforded second class status. There is power in being able to distribute praise and implications for authority when praise is a common form of social currency.

I’ve started, led, and participated in a great many groups over the years. Groups with clear self awareness but permeable borders, I don’t like cliques and cults. I’ve watched what makes a group work, and what doesn’t. I have run as a benevolent dictator enough times. To be giver of praise and encouragement is a very easy way of making that role comfortable and useful, more an act of service than one of imposition. Benevolent dictatorships are good ways of getting things done, but they are not communities.

As Pagans we form into tribes of all kinds. Moot, grove, coven, learning circle, order and organisation. Sometimes for logistical reasons these have to have people running aspects of them, but that can be one role amongst many. Shared labour goes more naturally with free flowing affirmation, and people who freely exchange positivity are more likely to share responsibility and work. An affirmation culture makes you a good deal more aware of how other people see your input, and that can be a good counterbalance to those folk who make a lot of noise but otherwise contribute very little. In an affirmation culture, everyone has the right to judge you, and that in turn gives everyone a reason to be co-operative.

One person can define the nature of any group, if they’ve the will to do it. One person can shape the tribe they are in, and inform the society around them. Affirmation gets some really interesting results, some quickly, many over time. If you want a tribe, and a place to belong, affirmation might be the best way forwards. This is how we get cohesion and belonging.

Lessons from walking

One of the big issues around social interaction, for me, has always been how much compromise is required in order to fit. How much of me will it be necessary to hide? How much will I have to tolerate that I find difficult, uncomfortable, even painful? How much humiliation will I have to endure? How is the trade off going to work here and what’s the cost going to be, and can I sustain it?

As illustration, I love walking and there have along the way been opportunities to walk with various people. However, there are a few things that make me a less than perfect walker – poor depth perception and lack of physical confidence mean I struggle on rough terrain. Some days I am stiff and achy such that walking is hard work. Other people are a lot fitter than me. So in some situations, walking with people has required me to hide what I was struggling with, face terrain I found alarming, hold paces I found uncomfortable and endure being humiliated over anything I found difficult. Forever embarrassed, struggling to keep up and not even feeling it was ok to name the problem for fear of further ridicule, or outright rejection. If you won’t compromise to fit in, they might not take you with them.

Then there are the other walking experiences, with people who are happy to take things gently, and if I struggle, offer help. That’s a whole other world, and one I did not grasp even existed until these last few years. That it is possible to find people who like having me around such that some compromise can flow the other way, is a revelation. If I struggle, the pace can drop to help me manage. My shortcomings cease to be a source of embarrassment. Rather than feeling like a barely tolerated extra, I get to feel like part of the tribe.

From as far back as I can remember, my impression was that in all situations I would have to obfuscate my inadequacies and try very hard in order to fit. I would have to quietly accept whatever was asked of me, or done to me, while trying not to ask for anything or cause anyone else any discomfort whatsoever. I never had any sense that there was a place that belonged to me, just that with enough effort, it might be possible to be tolerated. It’s a belief that has coloured all of my relationships and left me vulnerable. With that belief set, it has been very easy to be at the mercy of people who were less than kind, while feeling grateful that they bothered with me at all.

There are plenty of people for whom I am not good enough. I get to hear about it, when I seem too… difficult. Inconvenient. Attention seeking drama queen, melodramatic, unreasonable, demanding… I’ve had plenty of that along the way. I’ve come to the simple conclusion that this is fine – other people are entitled to feel that way, and anyone who dislikes how I am is not obliged to interact with me. (I wonder what it says about the ones who dislike and yet want me to stay around?) I don’t need everyone to like me. So long as there are people to walk with who do not mind my downhill pace on uneven paths, I do not have to walk with people who find me too difficult.