Find the Others


my own photo, searching for the others in Belize, 2008

The exhortation to “Find the Others” was coined by Timothy Leary back in the 70s. Timothy was a psychology researcher at Harvard University, known for his experiments with psilocybin and LSD. He ended up being fired, and spent much of his life in prison.

He said the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out” was “given to him” by his friend, the Toronto professor of media studies Marshall McLuhan, during a lunch in New York City. “Turn on”, he said, meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment — to become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were just one way to accomplish this end.

“Tune in”, he said, meant to interact harmoniously with the world around you —externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” referred to the active, judicious process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments, to self-reliance, a discovery of one’s independence, freedom of mobility, choice, and change. He insisted he did not mean that we should “get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.

He said that his slogan was mostly to provoke, to get people worked up to escape from conformist thinking. He often used the term “attentional revolt,” a term that especially resonates today in our bewildering, distracted world of massive attentional deficit. Only once you’d done this inner work, he said, could you move effectively to action. We need to recapture our autonomy and our authenticity, he insisted, so we can cease being principally reactive creatures.

And then he added: “Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.
By “Trust your instincts” he said that once you’ve become self-aware, you have to learn to challenge propaganda, no matter who it comes from. He remarked: “No one knows what’s going on better than you do.” By “Do the unexpected”, he noted that everyone is trying to get you to do what they think is right; you should do what makes sense to you instead.

Nothing terribly new or challenging in any of this. It was the final phrase — “Find the others” — that is perhaps the most ambiguous and enduring of Timothy’s “mantras”.

“Finding the others” is the process of dropping out of the anonymous, homogenized culture of modern urban life in favour of a re-tribalized culture.

Daniel Quinn’s Beyond Civilization defines tribalism, and argues that tribal cultures have always been the natural means of humans’ (and many other creatures’) social self-organization. Tribal cultures have been supplanted, uncomfortably, by ceding our authority and responsibility to anonymous, disconnected, top-down-managed entities — political units, organizations, “communities” of practice and interest etc — that require no commitment, and no deep knowledge of members’ needs, values, and capacities. If they don’t serve their superficial purpose, we just disengage from them and search for other groups with which we find greater affinity. Easy come, easy go.

Real community, as Joe Bageant famously said, is born of necessity. Your “tribe” necessarily consists of people who need you, and who you in turn need. In this world where nuclear family is somehow supposed to fulfil that function, the idea of also belonging to a tribe that has enormous, reciprocal obligations attached to it, is not a popular one.

But suppose you do want to find your tribe. How do you go about “finding the others”?

It’s pretty clear what is not helpful in this search. Finding the others is not an analytical, linear process. You can’t sit down and methodically create a process and criteria and then identify those who meet them. So regardless of what kind of tribe you are seeking, you likely won’t find the others at business “meet and greet” lunches, bars or online dating sites. It’s questionable whether you can find them online at all, our new Zoom expertise notwithstanding.

Past generations of North American youths went to Europe or Asia to “find themselves”. Since we identify (find) ourselves in apposition to others, this might have been an indirect attempt to “find the others”, or at least to learn more about ourselves and the world, in order to make the task more achievable.

Recognizing “the others” is essentially a co-creational process. We “find the others” in our (personal or work) lives when there is a mutual recognition of affinity and affection. Love that only goes one way can never be workable. So to some extent, you (singular) can’t find the others; a group (plural) self-organizationally and mostly intuitively finds “itself” and hence its members. That is, unless it is incapacitated by lack of self-knowledge and self-management competencies, distracting crises, or cultural fragmentation, acedia and anomie. It is hard to make new things work when everything around you is burning.

Most recent writing on tribal behaviours is focused on the negatives and dangers of such affiliations — mob mentality, lack of critical thinking, discrimination, and a focus on identity and inclusion/exclusion. Some of the well-intentioned “spiritual” and highly idealistic communes and other experiments in re-tribalization failed because of poor and unequal power dynamics, poor appreciation of the demands that such affiliations place on us, especially in our hyper-individualistic western culture, and because of unreasonable expectations and impatience.

Tribalism is arguably the evolutionary outcome of the need for humans to collaborate socially — we are maladapted to solitary existence. That evolutionary drive is manifested chemically: we get a dopamine rush from belonging, from approval and attention and reassurance, and from kinship. It’s parallel to the chemical rush we get from falling in love: finding and bonding with a life partner. In some respects it defies logic.

So how might we begin, however late in life we come to realize the need to “find the others”? Marshall McLuhan might have suggested that if we want to “find the others” after following Timothy’s other advice, we need to invent new, non-analytical ways of re-tribalizing. We might start by doing some of these things:

  1. Find yourself first — Discover what you really care about, needs that are important to you and that are currently unmet, how you see your purpose in life etc, and then convey those to everyone you meet to discover who shares those passions and that sense of purpose. Or start with people you just really like, really have chemistry with, and figure out if you also have shared passions and a shared sense of purpose.
  2. Tell a “future state” story, like a bard — describing a feasible desired outcome, not a process for “getting there” — and see who pays attention. This might be “the better world we all know is possible”, but writ much smaller, more practical and modest, and more locally “envisage-able”. The story needs to be ‘sticky’ (ie it has to evoke both a strong emotional and intellectual response) so it will stay with people, and so the memory of you and your story will stay with your potential “others” while they realize it’s their desired outcome too. (Historically the vast majority of tribes have been oral cultures, so better the story be told than written.)
  3. Learn how to craft open invitations — authentic, irresistible enticements that will attract “unusual suspects” to convene around things you and they are passionate about, so that the “others” can and will find you.
  4. Get involved in activities outside your comfort zone — volunteering, travel, following ‘weak ties’ to other networks that connect you somewhat serendipitously to new people and new ideas. Many people end up finding their life partners and their best jobs through the “strength of weak ties“, so maybe you can find your tribe the same way.

Douglas Rushkoff has recently been telling people that “finding the others” is perhaps the most important thing we can do right now. Douglas used to hang out with Timothy, and, as with Timothy, it’s not always clear what he means when he says things like this. He says it is the means to overcome the “disenfranchisement and shame” that prevents us from realizing our potential, and that part of the goal is breaking down the polarized silos that politics and social media have manufactured by reaching across until those we see as opponents are understood, and are no longer “others”. I’m not sure that’s what Timothy was getting at, but then no one really knew what he was getting at!

I had the good fortune a number of years ago (at Joe Bageant’s invitation) to witness a community (a village in Belize) that, at least in those days, actually functioned as a “modern” tribal culture. They made peace with, lived with, and loved, some people they really didn’t like, because they had no choice. They did so effectively for over two centuries. It was astonishing to witness. They looked after each other. Their entire self-managed community (1500 people) are their “others” — the people they were “meant” to live with and make a living with. It was hard. And they were brilliant at it. They were a tribe.

Part of our challenge is that, unlike them, we do, seemingly, have a choice. And we have barriers (like the cost of property, and many laws and regulations designed to protect us from our socially broken, industrial culture’s excesses) that, for now, prevent most of us from living in a truly tribal culture with “the others” we have found. Once our civilization’s collapse reaches a more advanced stage, not only will this be much easier, it will be necessary. All the more reason to “find the others” sooner rather than later, and start to re-learn how to live in a tribal culture.

There is already evidence that within a decade (if we’re serious about tackling climate change) or two (when we will start to run seriously short of affordable energy), airline travel will have largely ceased. If you are dependent on flying to meet with loved ones, or to travel to places you prefer to your home town, it’s not too early to be thinking seriously about moving, and/or moving your loved ones. That alone may jump-start your thinking about who “the others” might be. Once civilization is in its advanced state of collapse, you will likely find that your immediate local community will be, of necessity, your tribe, and you’ll have no further choice in the matter.

So if I were to start looking to “find the others”, I would probably start by deciding where — what one place — I would be most content living out the rest of my life. I have never found that place (though several times I thought I had), but if I did, it would have to be a place that was both beautiful and sustainable (ie with the potential to be independent of the need to import stuff), and which had people already living there whose company I overwhelmingly enjoyed.

Then I would learn the local customs, local history and livelihoods, and the local culture. I would study place-making, and decide what kinds of places would best benefit the people in my adopted community, and strive to bring them to fruition. And then I would invite the people, openly and generously and without exclusion, to gather in our community, in our places, to do the things together that bring us joy, and to start to plan together for the advanced stages of civilization’s collapse. I would help us learn essential skills like consensus, conflict resolution, facilitation, mentoring and self-management. And then together we would, I think, inevitably and of necessity “find the others”, our true tribe.

I haven’t started, and at my age it’s possible I never will, but if I did, I think that is how I would do it.

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4 Responses to Find the Others

  1. Doc Hall says:

    Your understanding of tribe is broader than mine. By tribe, I have understood it to be a family-ties group, an extended family with tribal bonds of trust. (Rules are needed, like arranged marriage, to prevent inbreeding.) Essentially a mutual survival compact among blood kin. Anthropologists have “studied” such tribes, but that is not the only way to understand them. 21st century educated Americans are not well-positioned to grasp the bonds of trust in this way.

    By tribe, we are apt to think of an affinity group. That has a more limited bond of trust. I belong to a credit union, a member owned financial institution. Since I personally know very few other members, that is a thin bond of trust. I was also a co-founder of a professional self learning association; great friends with a few. Most I don’t know at all. That is still a far cry from you-die; I die — a survival level of trust, seen in combat units and in mutual survival indigenous tribes.

    The crucial trust required for global commerce is confidence that the other party will perform as promised, or contract trust. If they owe, they will pay. If they promised to ship, they will. etc. Indeed, Francis Fukuyama proposed that Western civilization came to dominate the world because native tribal cultures could not form trust on this broad a scale. However, this is a very weak bond of trust. Commercial bonds of trust are wimpy, and people cheat consistently. Especially if their primary objective is to win, not to survive.

    One last point. Indigenous tribal governance stressed participation, first because antagonistic cliques threatened survival for all, and second people collaborating assured better living for all. For example, a recent tribal election became heated, with lies and mud-slinging, threatening tribal unity. The elders required each candidate to give a campaign speech — on why his opponent should be elected.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    Communities with a great deal of interpersonal trust build that trust over time. One can’t just “parachute in” to a community and expect a warm welcome into the bossom of the “tribe” and immediate acceptance as a full member.

    Long established communities, especially rural communities, will often be courteous and helpfull to newcomers, but it may take decades of participation in community life to build enough trust and respect from other community members that they will accept your assessment of community issues and seriously consider your judgement. Newcomers just don’t have enough skin in the game.

    So, building a tribe can’t be done quickly. It may take more than one generation and a lot of intra-tribal mating to form the strong social bonds that facilitate mutual support in circumstances of extreme stress or external danger. In fact, as Doc Hall implies in a previous comment, if you aren’t born into a tribe it is not likely you will ever be a full member. Looser associations may be easier to create, but they fall apart more easily, too.

    The drama and stress of collapse may greatly accelerate the process of bond building, but it would be better to have a head start. And having a head start requires living in a community where people generally stay put. In my experience, cities are unlikely to be places where people stay put and stay connected. I suggest moving to a rural community that has good prospects for self-reliance in terms of basic needs like food and water. Settle down, raise your children alongside your neighbors kids and stay active in community affairs continuously. Hang in there for a few decades and you may have a chance at being taken seriously.

  3. Mushin says:

    Dave excellent context and I am doing it with the Lakota. Your dear friend Andrew James Campbell introduced your writing many years ago. What I have learned as a cognitive scientist is gathering trust is a dignified real time ~ pure play in oral social interactions where authentic human commitments are a joyful concern healing the Industrial Age dehumanizing by recovering Natural Ecological Enterprises. Retreating to nature we listen to the winds ~ waves of eternity in the beauty of momentariness and at home on Starship Earth. All these breakdowns happening is freeing your mine we and us to recover our primordial wisdom constituting sustaining and maintaining the biology of live ~ dignified human ecology as a geospatial reasoning including the stars. You’re always welcomed at our camp on the edge of civilization on the Great Plains. Merry Christmas be safe secure happy and prosperous in 202i.

  4. Mushin says:

    Dave excellent context and I am doing it with the Lakota. Your dear friend Andrew James Campbell introduced your writing many years ago. What I have learned as a cognitive scientist is gathering trust is a dignified real time ~ pure play in oral social interactions where authentic human commitments are a joyful concern healing the Industrial Age dehumanizing by recovering Natural Ecological Enterprises. Retreating to nature we listen to the winds ~ waves of eternity in the beauty of momentariness and at home on Starship Earth. All these breakdowns happening is freeing your mine we and us to recover our primordial wisdom constituting sustaining and maintaining the biology of live ~ dignified human ecology as a geospatial reasoning including the stars. You’re always welcomed at our camp on the edge of civilization on the Great Plains. Merry Christmas be safe secure happy and prosperous in 202i.

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