Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Does Time Fly?

It is common knowledge that time seems to pass at different rates. We all know the old saw, "Time flies when you're having fun". And we also know that, as we get older, the days seem to slip by faster and faster. I'm old enough now, that I hear that complaint a lot. Every year ... shorter than the one before. Why? We know that the Earth is not really lapping the sun at a faster rate. We know that it is our perceptions that have changed. But what exactly causes this changed perception, and can anything be done to slow the calendar down a bit?

I have good news. Not only have I figured out why time goes by faster each year for most of us, but I can tell you how to slow it down. You can make your years - from now on - go by as slowly as they did back in High School. And you can enrich your life while doing it.

So why does it happen? There are a couple of theories out there. The one I hear most has to do with fractions. The idea is that, as we grow older, each passing year represents a smaller fraction of our life in total. So at fifty, a year is only a fiftieth of my total life, while at twelve, a year is a full twelfth of the whole thing. We all remember the seemingly endless weeks leading up to summer vacation. Back then, life moved like a glacier set in concrete.

The 'fraction' thing sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. I once thought that myself. It's possible that I even made it up. I remember saying it to people, but not where I first heard it. But no matter ... because it's nonsense. Forget about the problem of why it would be that our brains would be ticking off the hours of our lives like a stop-watch and then calculating each according to it's comparative fractional value. Forget about that. In order to disprove this theory one need only find that twelve-year-old and ask him. Ask first in the late spring. Ask if the year is flying by. Then ask, in the fall, if summer seemed long or short. You know the answers you'll get. If that all takes too long, here's a Cliff's Notes version. Ask on Friday morning and again Sunday at bedtime. The week will be dragging endlessly on, while the weekend will have come and gone in the wink of an eye.

What makes that happen? The answer lies in understanding a couple of things. First we have to consider why one year might seem very long and another very short. I propose that the only way of gauging that is by looking back across it while it is still recent history. Any considerable span of time is made up of many, many days, hours, moments. The more of them that we can remember, the fuller will seem the span which contains them. And if it seems chock-full of days and moments, it will seem like a long span. If on the other hand, we don't vividly remember an awful lot of moments, it will - being sparsely populated by memories - seem to have gone by quickly.

So what would cause a year to contain so many memorable days that it seems like it must have been an extra-long year? Are you ready? Trauma! I don't mean the kind of trauma that sends you to a hospital by helicopter, or into the arms of therapy. I am talking about traumatic memory. Anything that makes you feel slightly afraid, is entered into your long-term memory. This is an evolutionary adaptation. It is, to a creature living in a dangerous world, of great value to remember when and where that creature encountered danger, so that it might avoid the danger next time round. Almost stepped off a ledge? Better etch that into the permanent record. Ate a flower that looked good but made your guts twist into knots? Don't forget what that looked like. Snakes like to dangle from trees, bears hole up in caves. All of this info needs never to be forgotten.

On the other hand, for those long days of summer where one had only to eat from nearby trees, and occasionally mate, or wrastle with the younguns? Pleasant, but uneventful. Not much point in wasting space on the hard-drive. We inherited the basic structures of those old primate brains, and that is why some time flies by and some drags. It has everything to do with how much of the time contained within any span was fraught with tension, thereby rating moments stored in the brain permanently.

For our twelve-year-old, the whole school year is tension. There are things to learn that don't seem learnable, tests always looming, the confusing mystery of girls, and likely bullies in the schoolyard and imminent failure on the ball-field. He's got a long-term memory working overtime. Summer is a lark by comparison. You see my point.

It isn't only danger that can etch a memory deep. Nor is a permanently stored memory always a bad memory. All that is required is that, whatever you are doing, it takes you far enough outside your comfort zone that your mammal brain captures it into memory just to be on the safe side.

Imagine that you are fifteen and trying out for the cheerleading squad. Imagine that you do great and go home victorious. You will never forget that, and you might think that gives the lie to my theory. But it doesn't. Even though that was a day of triumph and joy ... it was also a day wherein you risked rejection and disappointment. Chances are that you will remember in great detail, the mental processes that gripped you in the days leading up to that pivotal moment. You may remember the moment itself, and the heightened reality directly after. But probably the day after cheerleader try-outs is now lost to memory.

To keep it simple, it's like this: Whatever you do that takes you out of your comfort zone - either voluntarily and excitedly, or due to misfortune - will be remembered. The more impact that it has on you emotionally, the longer it will stay with you (excepting, of course, severe trauma that leads to some sort of self-protective blocking). You'll remember the first overwhelming joy at meeting a loved one, but not every moment that you later spent with that same loved one. One moment knocked you out of your comfort zone, however joyously, and the latter moments were within your comfort zone and didn't trigger the internal tape machine.

So, it's the number of moments per year that you can enter into long-term memory, that will determine how long that year will seem upon reflection.

And if your years are going by faster and faster, it is probably because you have worked at making your life run smoother and more predictably. That's what we mostly do. We are more confident in our jobs, more comfortable in our relationships, more repetitious in our day-to-day habits. We have engineered lives for ourselves that insure a safe and snug cocoon firmly within our most comfortable zone. That is why we turn around and the summer is gone and we don't know where it went.

You are probably way ahead of me by now. You are probably thinking of all the things that you've wanted to do but put off because to attempt them scares you a little. Those are, of course, the very things that will slow down the merry-go-round.

As we get older, we think a little bit more often of the end. I can't speak for you, but I don't want my life to have just been a rote, careful walk through a predetermined course of action. I am terrified at the thought of getting to the last day, and knowing that I let it all get away from me. I look back on vast tracts of time and barely remember what I was doing during those years. It's almost a Rip Van Winkle sort of feeling. My beard is gray. My skin is loose. What happened?

But I am pleased to say that I have gotten the clock slowed down considerably in the last few years. I did it by stepping (and by being pushed) out beyond the confines of my own predictability. And I can't see any reason why I can't stay just enough off-balance to keep the memory-camera firing away and storing.

I'm not talking about grand bucket-list gestures here. You will not see me on your way up Everest. Just a little more of what I think I might, and a little less of what I know I can. That should do the trick.

Dave Morrison March 30, 2012

An Internet Sabbath?

Hey there. It's been a little over a week since I last posted anything. The last few pieces I wrote were a lot of work. I like those things, but I didn't hear too much about 'em. Sometimes people aren't thrilled with what I have to say. I might've hit some nerves. This one shouldn't bother anybody.

Also, though I think my stuff reads quick, there is no denying that it's kinda long. People don't have a lot of spare time for reading. I get that. Never in the history of all things historical, have there been so many distractions in all of our lives.And since I am publishing only online, anybody reading anything I write has to battle the urge to just very quickly check their Facebook feed, or their Twitter feed, or their Ebay auction or inbox. Someday soonish, all the good essays will be available in book form so that they might be read in the bathroom; you know, the way civilized people do it.

Till then, as a gift to my readers - real and imagined - I am going to fire off a few short things. This is the first of them. And since I've begun with an acknowledgement of how distracted we all are by our many portals of Internet connectivity, I'd like to talk about an idea I've been thinking about since the first time I missed an appointment because I could not stop hitting the Refresh button on my old Outlook email program nearly a decade ago.

I thought then that we ought to take a page from the book of our Jewish brothers and sisters and declare one day a week as off-limits vis-a-vis all forms of web-based technology.

In recent years I have had the opportunity to share a Shabbat dinner or two with friends. I watched as they repeated millennia-old rituals, as a lead-in to a full 24 hour period in which no work would be allowed to interfere with things of importance and meaning. I'm no expert on this as I grew up in a casually Catholic home. We were made to clean-up and go to church, but nobody ever tried to stop anybody from working. But there was, in our home, the remnants of a Sunday Sabbath. Chores were mostly a Saturday thing, and on Sundays we'd often go for a drive or some other family outing, and we at least tried to have the whole crew at the dinner table.

I suppose that it isn't really work itself that the Jews are guarding against. This tradition took root during the time when families were fed by farmers and herders and artisans. Days were long and carried workers far into the field. I think the prohibition of work was really - even then - simply the prohibition of distraction from God and family. If a man could be allowed to work every day, many of them would. If they did, they would eventually have little in common with their families. And the sages of that time understood that people often need to be forced to do the very things that will benefit them the most. Particularly if the benefit is to be one that reveals itself mostly in the long term.

As I sit writing this, I cannot take a second to pull up my Facebook page. I cannot see that somebody has responded to the brilliant comment I left this morning on that controversial thread. I cannot notice the bone-head response that some knuckle-dragger left to counter that brilliance. I cannot then decide to - just very briefly - answer that comment with an argument so perfectly constructed that the opposition will fall silent in awe. Or to look up later and see that two hours have disappeared, and my momentum has dissipated into the air.

I can't do any of that. I can't because, before I sat down to write this, I went into the main house and disconnected the cord that powers the wi-fi router that sends all of that distraction winging through the air to where I sit happily typing this in the Hobo Dojo. I do that every time I sit down to write. And I do it because, if I don't, I won't sit down to write. I might sit down to watch documentaries on Netflix, or watch Noam Chomsky debate William F. Buckley on Youtube. I might even learn how to play "She Thinks I Still Care" just the way George Jones intended it. But I will not write a blog post. Or a song. Or a letter. (a letter?). I can click on my Chrome tabs all I want, but nothing will be there to engage my scatter-shot attentions.

I haven't expanded these little windows of tech-deprivation out beyond the length of a nice long writing session; eight hours at the most. But I promise you this: if I had not begun to enforce this upon myself, the thirty-some-odd-thousand words that are posted here on this blogsite would still be fluttering around in my head like a bag of moths. I have no idea if the effort I've given this project will ever bring real benefit to another, but I can say with certainty that it has been good for me.

Now, I'm a lone wolf ... living out here in the margins, largely out of sight and mind, with more freedom than most anybody I know. I could fall into the interwebs never to be seen again, and the world might not miss me much. But most of us still have husbands or wives or children or parents who are probably wondering what ever happened to us. Most of us have friends ... the real kind ... the kind that can be hugged and made to laugh and trusted with a confidence. They are very different than the hundreds of 'friends' who we know through their postings and commentings. I'm always happy to hear from that pal of mine who owns the storage facility in New Mexico, but I doubt that he and I will be there for one another when the chips are down.

What if we took one day and night a week, and re-connected with them all? Or re-kindled our religious affiliations? Or joined a bowling league or a bird-watching group? Or read the classics? What might that do for our perspective?

So, I am proposing that we all take such a weekly one-day sabbatical (hmmm interesting word) from any connection to the Internet. I don't know what, beyond that, you might want to include. Maybe video games are a profound enough time-thief to be included. Or talk-radio. Or television. For me, it's those things that are interactive that grab hold of me and won't let go. For you it may be different.

I suppose that our Jewish friends are already doing this. I haven't looked for that or asked anybody about it. If they are, good for them. Regardless, I think it's a good idea, particularly for families. We already have Saturday and Sunday marked out, each historically a Sabbath. Kids are out of school, Dad and Mom are home from work. Time to put the laptops and the smartphones in a box on a high shelf and see if we remember how to be alone with each other.

Let's talk about it.

Dave Morrison ... March 30, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Make a Fundamentalist

Some years ago, I read a study looking into church attendance in America. I was, at the time engaged in regular debates with an Evangelical Christian I knew. We were both A.A.'s. His nickname around the rooms was Preacher Paul ... and mine was Dave the Atheist. (I was in a militant phase of my life-long agnosticism). I think I was hoping for evidence that religion was dying off due to the weakness of its own premise. And the study I read did show a sharp drop-off in attendance in some churches. But it also showed - much to my surprise - increases in other churches. Was it, as I might have expected, the more liberal churches that were gaining members while the more hard-line ones tailed off? Nope. It was exactly the opposite. As science and general secularism made the tenets of traditional religions harder and harder to swallow, people seemed to be gulping them down with more relish than ever.

This was baffling to me at the time. I was in my mid thirties, enjoying my first meaningful period of sobriety in years, and busily filling my mind with a lot of the evolutionary biology and anthropology that inform my world view to this day. But my thinking was engaged mostly in the question of what was real and what wasn't. I was having a ball dismantling the beliefs of my friends, not much interested yet, in how a deeper understanding of human origins might be useful in trying to make a better world. That would come later.

But the little riddle posed by the study I'd read stayed with me, and it wasn't long before I started to look for the 'why' of it. Why would people, surrounded by the increasing licentiousness of an ever more secular society, be hewing toward forms of religion that forbade their enjoyment of it all. Why would these folks - the very demographic for whom the term 'ME generation' was coined - be seeking out religious congregations that said not "do what you feel" but "do as you are told"? Why?

And it has not lessened at all since. Fundamentalism is on the rise the whole world 'round. But so is secularism. At about the same rate. How could this be? In a world increasingly united by satellite television, movies and the Internet, how was it that large numbers of people seemed to be choosing not the future, but the past? How were these people not only resisting all the new permissions society was handing out, but actually finding a counter-message powerful enough to satisfy. Were the TV evangelists really doing that good a job?

Well, it took me a while to understand. But eventually I figured out that it wasn't that messages of old-time religion were holding back the secular tide. It was, in fact, the secular tide itself upon which the new fundamentalism was rising like an ark from an old and unlikely biblical tale. In confusing times, people seek solidity and structure. Sometimes, a mounting deluge of options is not what the doctor ordered.

There is an old cliche in sports movies and books. In it we see a basketball team sitting dejectedly on wooden benches in a locker room. A coach in a rumpled sport coat is pacing. Everyone stares at the floor. Finally the coach stops and gathers his resolve. "Okay", he says, "I'm not going to lie to you. We're getting our butts kicked out there. They're bigger. They're faster. They're just plain better than us. We look like a neighborhood pick-up team playing against the NBA all-stars. Should we give up? Should we just sneak out and head for the bus? No. Why? Because we don't quit. We don't give up. What we do is reach deep inside. We find our hearts. We find our guts. And we fall back on the fundamentals. We're playing their game out there. No wonder they're mopping the floor with us. So I want you all to get up ... stand tall ... and remember everything I've drilled into you a thousand times. They can't beat us unless we beat ourselves. Now get back out there and play your game ... our game! And remember there is no 'I' in Team!"

Every time that I hear about riots breaking out just after Friday Prayers in one or another Muslim country, I think that they must all have had a similar pep-talk that afternoon.

I posted a little graphic the other day. It said this: "Here's how to make a fundamentalist ... Find a traditionalist, and then push him into a corner." What I meant was; if you undermine a person's dearly held beliefs, you are unlikely to cause him to let them go. He is much more likely to dig his heels in and fight to keep them. To fall back on the fundamentals ... and come out swinging.

In this post, I am using the term 'Fundamentalist' to include anybody who has hunkered down with their core beliefs. We are all aware of religious fundamentalists, but I see a sort of fundamentalism everywhere I look these days. And I see a common thread. I see people who hold something dear, and feel that they are faced with a real threat to keeping it. It could be a political credo, or a contested scientific theory. Animal rights groups and environmentalists can get pretty fundamental. Hell, we've all heard about Pete Seeger trying to ax the power when Dylan went electric. Folk-music fundamentalism right there.

The controversy that still swirls around the idea of evolution is just one of many battles between scientific understanding and the adherents to traditions that such new knowledge threatens to obsolete. When Copernicus proved that the earth was not circled by the sun but was itself a mere solar satellite, the issue was not only one of astronomy. That bit of celestial re-jiggering called into question the centrality of the earth, and by inference, our own importance in the eyes of God. And that, for some was a genuine crisis.

The stories of Galileo's house-arrest for heresy and of much harsher treatment for other doubt-casters during the inquisition make my point. It was not coincidence that an extremely harsh and unbending version of Christianity was ascendant at the time of the renaissance. It was to be expected.  The scientists, and the humanists, threatened to bump God from his throne. How could there not be blow-back? Is it a coincidence that the "Five Points" that define American Fundamentalism were adopted at the end of a decade that brought us Freud, Einstein, The Wright Brothers, Liberal Theology and Biblical Criticism? Or that televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson exploded in popularity following the cultural excesses of the sixties and seventies? I don't think so. I think that whenever social, technological and scientific movements seem to promise limitless options while sawing away at the legs of traditional assumptions ... a re-trenching is bound to happen.

Is it really such an anachronism that a man of Rick Santorum's seemingly antiquated beliefs has found such traction in the time of Internet porn, soaring out-of-wedlock birthrates, the 'Saw' movies, and demands for gay marriage? Not in my view. I would be surprised if there was no Santorum on the scene.

For me, every widespread human behavior has its roots in the close-knit tribal units of the hunter-gatherers we once were. To explain how one is driven toward a hard-core version of his beliefs in response to societal pressure, I look to two behavioral quirks of humans. One is common to most animals and one is found only in group-oriented mammals. The Fight or Flight impulse, and In-Group, Out-Group thinking.

Everybody knows that most wild animals will run away from humans or other animals that pose a threat. They see the predator, or smell it, and in an instant muscles are charged with blood and blood with adrenaline and the animal is gone in a flash. Unless it is cornered, of course. At that point the physiological responses that ought to have propelled it out of reach are recruited for another, less optimal purpose: to fight its way clear. In a case like this a mouse will attack a cat, or a cat attack a dog.  This is as basic an animal response as we can imagine. This is Fight-or-Flight.

The other is more subtle, and less well known. Among pack animals like us humans, complex systems develop by which we all can know our places in the order of our survival group. All our bonding skills are based on this. We'll survive better if we can care about others and be cared about in return. That is crucial. And to do that effectively, we must be able to identify our fellows. That part is pretty easy when you see each other every day. But there is another piece to this. In order to respond to threat as a group, all of its members must agree as to which outside forces pose that threat.

This is a little trickier. A threat might be something familiar like common predators, or fire, or thunderstorms. At the first indication that one of these is around, the survival group can quickly gather and defend against it, pooling their strengths. But sometimes a threat can be harder to spot. This is particularly true when it comes in the form of another group of the same species. Maybe the threat is readily apparent; an outright attack by marauders, say. But another type of threat might not be at all apparent at first. Maybe this new group, upon arrival, seems friendly enough, but stays to pick the trees bare of fruit and kill all the small game. Maybe they out-hunt the local guys and carry off the best women. There are many ways to lose your tribe to interlopers.

And so, during the long journey from the jungles of Africa to the condos of the San Fernando Valley, humans took on another wired-in behavior: the tendency to identify not only the group you belong to, but the group or groups to which you do not belong. Us ... and Them. And emotions are assigned to each. Trust, affection, loyalty, love ... these are for the group you're in. Suspicion, fear,  hatred ... these are for those other bastards. That's In-Group, Out-Group. This explains prejudices of all kinds, racial, religious, regional, political etc.

It is, you see, of greater evolutionary value to run from or fight off somebody who might possibly pose a threat, than it is to leave the welcome mat out and the doors unlocked. Ultimately, the root of all behavior is the will to survive, and having done that, to reproduce. We will all die one day, but it is hoped that our people will live on. And the truth is that we don't much care if their people do.

Sure ... we deny this. We are smart enough to have figured out that behaviors that were state-of-the-art for roving bands of proto-humans don't work so well for giant mega-tribes that have to find enough commonality within to form nations, and enough tolerance for the foreign, to have some decent trading partners and military allies. We have built structures to help us do that: The U.N., NATO, The Hague. And even with all of these, we barely contain our largely arbitrary disgust for the ways of other groups. Which is all the proof you need to be convinced that warring among ourselves is as natural to us as living peacefully. After all, why would we need treaty organizations and international courts if we tended naturally to accept one another?

So it is these two basic impulses that give us so much trouble. Fight or Flight, and In-Group, Out-Group. And both are wired deep into our humanness, and are not going away any time soon. They can not be 'taught' out of children by well-meaning educators, or 'shamed' out of adults by the insult-words 'bigot' or 'xenophobe'. They are with us forever, as far as we are concerned, and travel often as a pair.

Additionally, because these are not urges born in our logic centers, they don't incline us toward careful parsing of evidence. We look for shorthand definitions both of the group we identify with, and the ones we fear. So we might be patriotic or open-minded or virtuous or compassionate, while they are sexist or Marxist, or fanatical or degenerate. These labeling words always miss as many as they hit, but we don't ever seem to tire of using them. Because when a threat appears, accuracy takes a powder.

It's easy to see why the traditionalism of Muslims is hardening more and more into fundamentalism and radical strains even of that. They are positively besieged by a modern secular world view that gives the lie to nearly everything they believe in. Their children will not, unless swift action is taken, hold to the same values that they believe are absolutely critical to the longevity of their faith, and way of life. How could they? Our western-secular seduction is everywhere. We have not only pushed them into a corner, but the corner is broken off from the house and surrounded on all sides. What would you do? I think I'd fight back. But do we back off? Give 'em a little time to adjust? Never. Not when there is profit to be had. We won't be running out of terrorists any time soon.

In less violent terms, the same thing is going on among our own religious conservatives. They are, frankly, appalled at what has been done to the Judeo-Christian America that they believe is their providentially designed homeland. They think that a liberal court has legalized the mass murder of a million innocent babies a year. They believe Hollywood is doing everything in its power to shatter the nuclear family, and turn this place into a modern-day Gomorrah. And gay marriage? Lord have mercy. Is it any wonder that they back Santorum? Not to me, it's not.

And how do their opponents on the secular far-left respond? By ridiculing them, and treating their beliefs with as casual a disregard as one might express toward the idea of a flat earth or one that sits at the center of the planetary system. In other words, nothing to calm them, and everything to further inflame them.

This, friends, is how you make a fundamentalist.

And it works in reverse too. When social conservatives do manage to mount a counter-attack, say by making abortion or contraception a bit more difficult to get, the activist-left goes into their own Fight-or-Flight paroxysms, striking back with all the vitriol they can muster toward the 'Women Haters' of the right-wing out-group. Or the 'homophobes' if it's a gay-rights push-back. Or the 'xenophobes' and 'racists' if it's about immigration or affirmative action.

They might shoot me for saying it, but some of my left-wing friends have become positively fundamentalist in their thinking. They hold to their progressive doctrine with a fervor that can only be described as religious. Exemplars of tolerance? Only selectively.

In these starkly polarized times, both sides of this American coin, are largely defined by their extreme edges, (the moderates mostly not threatened enough to either fight or flee). Both sides call each other extremists. And on any given day, when either has felt sufficiently threatened ... both are quite correct. And as they tie more and more of their identities to the struggled-over values and counter-values, they all put more and more investment toward embracing the in-group, and defeating the out-group.

Does this all sound like bad news to you? I hope not. Because it's really very good news. If what I'm saying here is even mostly true - which I assure you it is - then the take-away is that much of what divides us is the result of mismanaging human traits that every last one of us has in common. And if the trouble comes from doing it badly, the solution must exist in doing it well.

The human brain is a system of the body. It produces thought in much the same way that the pancreas produces adrenalin. It will think and believe whatever it perceives as being best for that body. When stressed into fearfulness, the brain will think from fearfulness, and the result is often hostility. But when the stress is allowed to die down, that very same brain becomes, not only less vicious, but downright agreeable. We've all seen this happen. We've all been in arguments that ratchet up and up till everybody is pretty dug-in. And then somebody will concede a point. And suddenly both parties feel terrible about fighting, and can't wait to do something nice for each other. I have, in fact, formed some very good friendships in just that way.

What I am suggesting is that we all try hard to understand the motivations of those we have consigned to the out-group. If we can do that - and imagine ourselves in their proverbial shoes - we might find that we like them a lot more than we think we do. At least enough to respect them. Maybe they will like us better too. How can that be bad?

I truly never thought, twenty years ago when I was going hammer and tongs with Preacher Paul, that I would someday spend much more time advocating for religious people, then I do poking holes in religion. But I do ... as confounding as that may be to some. I may never understand why they believe what they do, but once they know I accept them, their need to either convince me or escape from me evaporates into the air.

Now if I can just stop fighting with the folks who vote the way I do ...

Dave Morrison ... March, 20, 2012

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 3

Hi All ... if you haven't read parts 1 and 2 of this, please go back and do that. Thanks.

Okay ... I'm back. I never wrote an essay in three parts before. I don't want to write Part 3. I want to have written it; a very different thing. This is where discipline drags laziness off the couch and slaps some sense into him. And to make it worse, I lost six or eight paragraphs last night when I shut the computer down without saving. It feels like punishment to start over. Groan.

So, let's gut it out together, okay? And maybe whatever it is in me that likes to write, and can ... will wake up and decide to pitch in.

In my first two segments, I tried to persuade you that, in spite of all our modern trappings and intricate cultural slights of hand, we are still group-oriented primates. If I have failed to do that you are probably not reading this. So I guess I can stop worrying about you and get on with talking about how the 2nd Tribe can contribute to a better, happier society for all of us.

I hurried through the last of Part Deux last week, because the clock told me I had to finish up and head down to North Hollywood and my hosting duties at Kulak's Woodshed. The crowd that hangs out there is, for me, a 2nd Tribe. And I don't like to miss my weekly connection to them. So I finished up, hit the shower and was pulling on some clean clothes as the phone rang. It was a friend calling; the only other Kulakian who lives in Thousand Oaks. She had a car problem and needed a ride. Now she and I have had some Facebook arguments recently, and I wasn't sure where we stood in our friendship. But, after spending six hours writing about the joys of community and the pull-together spirit - I was sure as hell not gonna say no. I grabbed her up and we drove down and back together, talking amiably. After writing all day about the 2nd Tribe, an hour hadn't passed before I had the opportunity to see it in action.

You see, in spite of our ongoing political disagreements (she is a staunchly liberal feminist and I am, well ... me), our commitment to the funky little community we both love is stronger than our need to either vanquish or be rid of one another. This is a lot of what is so good about belonging to a smallish purpose-driven group. Much is lost when we select our friends based only upon how closely their thinking resembles our own.

I mentioned Facebook. If there is another phenomenon extant in our culture with greater potential to teach us who we are - I am not aware of it. On any day my news-feed shows me what interests my 'friends' enough that they are compelled to state it publicly. I have just about a thousand Facebook Friends. Probably two-thirds have come to me through the world of folk music and those are about 85% off-the-rack liberals. I know what they are going to say before they say it. They're outraged at the Republicans and blah, blah, blah. And there are also the virulent right-wingers who post twenty and thirty times a day, sending along some out-of-context snippet of Obama video that has them in a pantie-wad about the onrushing socialist nightmare. Others never venture into the political, preferring instead to send pictures of meals, kids, reunions and adorable animals sleeping entwined. There are still others who seem determined to prove to the world how grateful they are for their lives, and how full of inner peace they are. Often they post a Rumi quote, or a snatch of poetry written in a curly-cue font across a purple sunset.

It occurs to me that, without this very strange interface - this two-way mirror through which we encounter strangers and 'real' friends with an identical amount of both intimacy and remove - most of the active Facebookers would spend very little time on the thoughts that now seem to obsess them. It's as if this little portal has opened upon a larger world, and we are all casting ourselves into it like messages in bottles, waiting to be picked up and read on a distant shore. Somewhere out there, we think to ourselves, are 'my people'. And when we receive messages back - Likes, Shares, Comments - we have proof of our existence. And we become, a bit more confidently, the person that drew the response.

Years ago I wrote a song about 'taggers', the graffiti vandals who mark up the city with spray cans. In it, I admitted that I'd never clung one-handed to a freeway overpass mere yards above speeding metallic death, but that I sure did know how it felt to want to leave my mark. I've wondered about that often. What is it in us that so needs to be acknowledged? The poet in me lapses into reverie at the poignancy of it all. But I think that I do understand. Our lives are imperiled, in our atavistic brains, if we are not seen as important to our tribe. And whatever that tribe is - however noble, silly, hysterical or violent is the group that accepts us - we will do what it takes to prove ourselves members in good standing.

Remember Patty Hearst. The 'Stockholm Syndrome' is what they called it when Patty switched allegiances and joined her captors in a bank robbery. So powerful is the human need for acceptance by the group, that even being locked in a closet by terrifying strangers won't shut it off. When stripped of its tribe, the poor human grieves a while and then latches on to a new one.

And the freeway tagger? Who pulls him in? Who gives his life meaning? Well unless he is scooped up by Father Boyle's Homeboys or one of the other fine groups working to loosen the grip of gangs, he'll likely end up a 38th Streeter or join the Mexican Mafia. Gangs are tribes. They would say their purpose is money, turf, honor ... whatever half-baked thing their alphas have come up with. And the police provide the outside threat. It's hard to break their hold, because there is nothing as compelling with which to combat them. There are about 500 violent gangs in Los Angeles county, with upwards of forty thousand members. That tells us a lot.

It seems to me that Facebook too, is evidence that we are, as a people, painfully unaffiliated. Hundreds of millions of us ... looking for our gang. The cute kitten videos are the 'tags' of the cute kitten gang. The old clips of, say, David Bowie on the Mike Douglas show, are the tags of the old rockers signaling to find their bros. The most obvious, of course, are the political bomb-throwers. They are soldiers in a cyber army, passing weapons around, calling out strategies, and covering each other as they storm the machine-gun positions of the enemy. This is no game to them, especially here in an election year. They have found a tribe and attached with every fiber. And no reasonable entreaty toward cooperation is of interest to them. They piss me off, but I have to admit ... at least they have beaten back the numbing effects of our consumerist society. They are at least interacting.

But are they making the world any better? No, I don't think they are. They are, rather, falling for the well-marketed myth that humans break down into the 'good' and the 'bad'. They're not greatly different really, from the thousands who went on crusades to kill others that they'd been told were not worthy of life. Not so different from Rwandan Hutus sharpening their machetes. Except in degree, of course.They aren't yet killing the enemy, but they are dehumanizing him, which is the warm-up step. They are susceptible, as are we all, to in-group, out-group thinking, and responsive to the promise of a better life. If the enemy of goodness can be located, and you can help to defeat him, your life will be better. Simple as that. This week it's a boycott against Rush Limbaugh for dissing a woman over her demands for free birth-control. Next week it will be something Obama said indicating weakness in the face of Iran's nuclear threat. If my tribal identification is as a left-winger, I'll be getting a pound of Limbaugh-flesh. If my identification is as a right-winger, I'll be lining up to beat up on the President one more time.

The most devoted of the Facebook brigade, probably feels an awful lot of the enlivening effects of a good group affiliation. But Facebook is a lousy substitute for a 2nd Tribe. Too big. Too full of strangers. Too little accountability.

Human beings do not break down into 'good' and 'bad'. There are no neat lines of demarcation dividing them into such broad categories. People are all mixed bags of traits, talents, tendencies. We can be moved in any number of directions by anyone canny enough to find our buttons and push them. Before this week is out, I will do or say something that, later, upon reflection, will just baffle me. But when I do look back, I will see how the doing of that dumb thing was in some way an attempt to be accepted. It's always that. And how often I do it, and how stupid it is, has everything to do with how solidly affiliated I am with a tribe that asks for my better aspects and pushes back against my worst.

And how willing a 'people' is to war against another, or just to vilify another has everything to do with how unhappy and bereft of purpose they are.

Of course, it isn't only the largely-written dysfunctions like war that make our lives less wonderful. Loneliness. Depression. Addictive behaviors of all stripes. Verbal and physical abuse that goes largely unnoticed. All of these micro things drain away the pleasure of life just as surely as the macro ones do.

Perhaps the greatest example of the intentionally constructed 2nd Tribe has arisen in response to the soul-killing problem of addiction. The 12-step movement illustrates a lot of what I've been talking about. The steps have been adapted to fight numerous addictions, but for simplicity, let's just use A.A. as our example. It might be said that there are millions of people in Alcoholics Anonymous. That might seem to disqualify it as a 2nd Tribe. But the fact is that the program is practiced in small groups. A group, or meeting, usually has thirty to fifty in attendance at any one time. There is a lot of overlap too; people can be semi-regulars at several meetings. These people all get to know each other over time. So if you are an A.A. regular, you will probably know a hundred or so people more-or-less well.

The purpose of A.A. is a good and simple one for bonding a group's members. Everybody in the tribe knows that alcoholism is dangerous, and the A.A. literature does much to make it even more fearsome. The compulsion to drink is variously identified as a fatal disease or anthropomorphized into a demon who wants you dead. The central ritual involves the telling of harrowing tales - the 'drunkalogue' - always ending with the nick-of-time rescue by A.A.. It's compelling stuff. A formidable foe, this alcoholism. A constant threat. Members are strongly urged never to be confident about having beaten it. It is believed that A.A.'s, as they call themselves, have only a daily reprieve, contingent upon a constant maintenance of their spiritual condition. This is gained by reading and re-reading the books, passing along the principles to others, and returning again and again to the meetings. The last thing you hear at the meeting is this couplet, spoken loudly by all in unison: "Keep coming back. It works, if you work it!"

I have a long history with A.A.. I think that I have been to about 3 thousand meetings. Our relationship was always stormy. I'm not great with adopting doctrine unquestioningly, and ultimately I found a path to sobriety outside those rooms. I found it lacking as a treatment for addiction (A.A. itself claims less than 10% as a success rate), but I was and remain impressed by how well A.A. provides an on-going small-tribe structure within which people are drawn toward their best selves. Admitting one's failings before the group is part of the program. That brings a large helping of accountability to the table. If you admit how you screw up, and want the people you've befriended to admire you, you will eventually replace those negative behaviors with positive ones. And about the time that that happens, a newcomer or two will start asking you for guidance. Then, on days when your own salvation is not enough to inspire you ... the salvation of those looking up to you usually is.

Ironically, A.A. has no interest in discussing tribal dynamics. They place the power of the program squarely on an individual's personal contact with God. That such a contact is not effective outside the context of a group, seems not to cause them any cognitive dissonance. I'll write later about how I think A.A. could double or triple its success rate by embracing evolutionary psychology. But let's move on.

Church congregations once provided excellent 2nd tribes. This was particularly true in rural areas where people lived spread-out. A once weekly reminder that you were accountable to forces greater than yourself lent much-needed perspective to a life. The church also served as a center for social activities, and led the charge when a charitable effort brought the community together. Add to this it's role in sanctioning the life-passage ceremonies: Christening, Marriage, Funeral, and it's not surprising that as church attendance has dwindled, societal malaise has spread like kudzu.

It's unfortunate that, as science has eroded the belief in God that once gave cohesion to society, it has done precious little to encourage bonding around non-god-based ideas. I'm as agnostic as they come, but I'm not blind to the profound loss secularism has fostered.

A problem with the formation of purpose-driven groups is the problem of leadership. People follow people, and a group can quickly become a cult of personality. This is almost always problematic. Most humans are too erratic to provide consistent leadership. The few who are steady enough to lead steadily, usually have no need for followers. Successful religious groups posit an ultimate authority outside any of their number, including the priests or ministers. A.A. has a nice take on this. No one person, however charismatic, is seen to be more important than any other, or as important as the group. There is no hierarchy as such. And at the beginning of the meeting, the readings often end with a statement as to the importance of anonymity. "Anonymity is the foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place Principles Before Personalities." That's good stuff there.

In the best of cases, sports teams can provide a lot of the character-building that takes place in a 2nd Tribe. I read yesterday about the great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Wooden is well-known to have had an effect on his players that lasted beyond their four years under his tutelage. I was curious about how he did that. I found a copy of his famed "Pyramid of Success" and twelve other principles he was fond of imparting to his players. Not surprisingly, most of these had little or nothing to do with basketball. I'll attach a link. Suffice it to say that most of his wisdom had to do with hard work, care for one another, faith in God, and a steadfast belief in team-over-individual. If all coaches were like John Wooden, we would have a better society. The inherent weaknesses of teams as 2nd Tribes are obvious though. They are made up of people selected on the basis of physical talent, for one thing. Also one's membership ends at some point, usually only a few years in at best. And there is not necessarily an acknowledged purpose greater than winning the game. That can be pretty limited.

People do attempt to form identity groups around the watching of sports teams, but I think that sort of thing has little potential for bringing out the best in people. I don't think I need to go into a litany of sports hooliganism to make the point.

I've been mulling over these ideas for many years, and one thing I return to again and again is the military. It's obvious that a sense of purpose and that of a looming threat are not hard to find within the culture of soldiers. In combat, a 'company' made up of several 'platoons' tends to operate best at around 150 in number. Not surprising. But the bit I particularly like is the opportunity to both boss and be bossed.

Last week, when I was hosting at Kulak's Woodshed, one of the volunteers came out of the back and said to me, "Paul wants to see you". Paul is Paul Kulak, owner and creator of the Woodshed. He's the boss. It's usually not good news when he calls me into the back where he is directing the camera-shoot for the live web-stream we do there. Now keep in mind that I had, to this point, been rockin' along, keeping people laughing, making decisions, and generally being 'the man'. Now I have to go see what Paul wants. Sure enough, he hasn't called me back to compliment me. He's seen me doing something sloppily that he'd rather I did well. He let's me know about it. And I, not being in my humblest mode, snap back a little. No big drama, just a guy legitimately bossing another guy who doesn't really want to hear it. But, because I know that I get more from the experience than I give, I stuffed my indignation down, went out front, and did as I was asked.

I have this little Beetle Bailey cartoon in my mind whenever I talk about the tribal structure of the military. A fighting force, in contrast to A.A., is richly hierarchical. I see a string of offices connected by doors. In the one on the far end, The general is shouting at a captain. The captain says yes sir and walks through the door. There he yells at the waiting lieutenant, who says yes sir and walks out the door, where he barks an order at a sergeant who goes and does the same to a corporal. In this scenario, everybody gets to be both a honcho and a lackey. Everybody, that is, except the private on the bottom. Even the general has to answer to civilian bosses ultimately. I know from my own life experience that being both the boss and the bossed has much to recommend it. Knowing where to find your inner-leader is always handy, and humility really is one of the indispensable traits of a decent human being. And there's nothing like being reminded of your failings to keep a little humility alive in a person. It keeps a man reasonable as he can never get too sure that he is right on anything. It also makes him more forgiving of others. After all, wasn't he doing his best the last time he came up short?

Aside from all that unfortunate business with killing people, there is a lot to like about the military for bringing out discipline, courage, humility, decisiveness, and a lot of other good things. I'm guessing more than one combat vet misses his platoon for reasons he can't quite articulate. As for the poor grunt with nobody to boss? A little bit of effort and self-control ought to get him a promotion.

Service organizations offer a lot of opportunity for those looking to layer a little sense of purpose into their lives, while keeping their people-skills in shape. I'd guess that these outfits, Optimist Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, etc. attract their share of annoying busybodies, but most are probably good-hearted. The Salvation Army is interesting. They actually use a military structure of sorts. And they do genuinely roll up their sleeves and help the needy. You could do worse for a 2nd Tribe.

Cultural organizations are easy to find and join too. Our friend Bonnie Wallace helped to run a theatre company on Bainbridge Island Washington, and found that a lot of the pro-community dynamics I talk about developed in that group. She is now writing a book teaching others how to do the same wherever they live.

Early this year, I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point. He writes about the Rule of 150. He mentions the Hutterites, a religious sect not too different from the Amish or the Mennonites. The Hutterites have been keeping their communities limited to about 150 for centuries. They find that a strong social fabric depends on the ability to know everybody you depend on. That when groups get much bigger, rivalries happen and a split is coming anyway ... so they prefer to get out ahead of it.

I was also interested in Gladwell's profile of Gore Associates, the Delaware-based manufacturing firm responsible for Gore-Tex fabrics and a lot of other high tech products. Often cited as one of the best employers in the U.S., they also adhere to the Dunbar Number, establishing new plants whenever existing ones swell past 150 employees. They eschew the traditional 'corporate ladder' and call all employees, 'associates'. Nobody gets a corner office. Everybody has access to everybody else and ideas can move horizontally with ease. All are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their fellows. Because of this, there is tremendous positive peer pressure. They have none of the us-against-them mentality that has often hobbled American business, and created a fertile environment for labor disputes. Neither is there much goofing off. When asked how they keep the numbers down, an executive said, " ... That's easy. We put a hundred and fifty parking spaces in the lot, and when people start parking on the grass, we know it's time to build a new plant".

Personally, I think that small businesses have terrific potential to become life-long 2nd Tribes. All of the elements are there. Earning a living is the most direct post-industrial analogue to hunting and gathering for survival. Likewise, competition from other businesses in the same niche will sometimes pose a threat to the tribe's very existence. If people are properly valued and much is expected of them, they will face such challenges with relish. As a lifelong tradesman, I know well the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from making something well that is then useful to whomever buys it. If your work can bring such satisfaction, and keeping it coming is dependant upon all working smoothly in shared purpose; and if, because of these bonds, all are assured a good living and good working conditions ... well then you will have a pretty fine life in a free capitalist society.

We are never going back to subsistence farming. We're not going back to join roving bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. A tipped hat to all the folks who are going off-grid, and living a simpler life. But my concern is for those who don't want to live in yurts and teepees, but do want to feel alive and engaged. The money-economy is here to stay, how well it works is up to us. There is no good reason for us to be polarized as deeply as we have become. There is no good reason for our children to slip through the cracks while their parents flounder.

At some point we have to fully recognize what sort of creature the human being is, and begin to notice which societal structures make us more or less happy and good. Religions mostly accept evolution now as one of God's elegant tools, for change if not for creation. That's good enough for me. Let's set aside the first-cause debate and even the speciation debate, and work on how we can give these flawed and spectacular humans - as they strive to be better - every opportunity to succeed.

Dave Morrison ... March 5, 2012

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success
Kulak's Woodshed Live Feed (I host the 4th Monday of each month, 7:30pm)