This is #22 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.
image above from the wild human initiative
I never really thought of myself as belonging to any particular tribe. Some might say I’ve actually made a bit of a fetish of not belonging. With a few rare exceptions, when I move (homes or jobs), I have almost no further contact with those I’ve left behind. I’ve certainly been perceived as belonging to particular tribes over the years. But the feeling has rarely been mutual. My relationships with tribes have always been mostly transactional — you do this for us, and we’ll do this for you. And then I move on. Having a poor memory for most things helps.
This old ape body took me on three trips this week. In doing so I passed through and was acknowledged by several tribes, or at least the vestiges of tribes — groups of various sizes whose members seemingly felt a deep sense of closeness and affinity for each other. Mostly couples, families, some friends and workmates. But mostly these groups passed each other as if the other group was invisible, or even in another dimension.
It’s strange to me that in our modern, horribly overcrowded world, we have almost entirely lost our understanding of what community is, and how important it is. So we have fallen back on our tribes, which are mostly, among adults anyway, little more than extended families. We may claim to be part of “communities of practice” or “communities of interest”, but by any normal definition “community” is a misnomer in these contexts, much like the misuse of the term “friends” in social media. It’s all make-believe belonging. We have no real skin in the game. Real community is born of necessity, and most of us just don’t (at least yet) perceive any necessity to belong to one. Too much work, hassle and responsibility. Family is hard enough as it is.
So as this ape body trudges off to the local theatre, it passes by and among several tribes, small groups of people walking and chatting, but this body is hardly noticed by them, and vice versa. There is no shared language, no shared culture. I have absolutely no idea how these people live, what they care about, or what keeps them awake at night.
Perhaps my distress at that, my longing to appreciate my neighbours and understand what they think, and what they think about, stems from my sense that we will likely soon all be living in a world of global precarity, necessitating that we learn to build and sustain community together with the people who happen to be living around us when the SHTF. As we slide from Everything Falling Apart into the Age of Chaos that we’re now seeing increasing signs of, most of us are not going to have the luxury of choosing our community.
Now this ape body has arrived at its destination for the evening — “our” local “community” theatre. This evening’s audience, for a comedy/mystery play performance, is almost entirely old, native English-speaking, and white. As someone who meets that description, I am warmly welcomed. I know the rules of these tribes — the customs, the rituals of old theatre-goers. It’s as if I’m being welcomed home, at least for the evening, but there is something ornery in me that resists that welcome. These are no more my tribe than the groups I passed on the way here, speaking languages I do not know, who are clearly not in this theatre audience tonight. Their tribes are meeting elsewhere.
The following evening, this ape body, restless, walks to my favourite local café. The café is under new ownership, but they’ve kept the old menu, and already they know me well enough that they smile at me, nod and wave hello, and start to prepare my “usual” beverage as soon as they see me. But, unlike where I previously lived on an overwhelmingly anglophone island, they call me “sir” instead of by name, though they see my name on the receipt every time I visit, and clearly know it.
As usual, there are at least four languages being spoken in the café. We are all members of different tribes of apes, at least transiently, and, thanks to the model of the Koreans, Chinese and Persians who make up half of this suburb’s population, we have learned to be unerringly polite and gracious to each other. Here, you don’t just get into an elevator and stare at your shoes and ignore everyone else in the elevator. But despite the niceties, and our physical proximity, we are not fellow tribe-members. Separated by single walls in our adjoining apartments, moving along shared walkways and roads, we nonetheless live in separate worlds.
Our city, and this suburb, are often described as “cosmopolitan”, which means “world citizens”. But we are not that. We have been thrown together, mostly by economic circumstances, into crowded spaces in which we awkwardly co-exist. To be a world citizen, you’d have to be able to speak the language and appreciate the culture and history of your neighbours, and we cannot.
Two days later, this ape body makes a trip to the ocean shore, for some errands. We* take the train, and watch as the complexion of our fellow passengers changes several times, reflecting the complexity of our tribal cohabitation. The buildings look mostly the same from the outside, though their inhabitants do not. Each is, it seems, an unlocked prison cell that its occupants have been conditioned from childhood to think of as “home”, or “work”, or some “third place”.
In ancient, real communities, I suspect no one would mistake the places or the ways we now live for “home”. This is not how creatures that are truly connected with each other, belonging to both a shared place and to each other, would ever live. Or, for that matter, where they would ever live.
It is as if all the cages in a zoo or circus have gradually been opened, and each uneventful trip from the nest to the feeding station to the performance stage and ‘home’ again is rewarded with a treat, until the tigers and the ducks and the horses and the bears just ignore each other and make their way, as they’ve been trained, until the cages can be left open and the animals forget that there was once some instinct to live differently from the way they are now conditioned.
I remember, on Kaua’i, seeing the feral cats and the baby chicks sleeping together in the bushes by the ocean, the cats indifferent, since they had never learned that birds might be food, and the chicks serene, having had no experience of a cat attacking them. Even the chicks’ parents accepted this strange order of things, grateful for the odd-looking baby-sitters that kept their offspring warm and dry. Amazing what wild creatures, and domesticated creatures, can get used to. When the good samaritans came around to take the unspayed kittens to be fixed (and then released), and to feed the spayed ones, the kittens seemed cautious to see food that was just left out for them, not in a familiar can.
When I first started imagining the humans I met (and myself as well) as being nothing more (or less) than domesticated apes, similarly to how I would imagine domesticated cats, dogs or horses, it was unsettling. But why should we perceive ourselves as different from other domesticated creatures in any practical sense? We domesticated ourselves — each other — before we started to domesticate other animals. We are no more or less biologically suited to live in cities than the animals we keep as “pets”.
Many years ago, our daughter used to bring her two dogs over to visit us when we lived on a large, hilly, fenced lot in the country. In addition to taking them for walks, we would let our dog Chelsea out into the fenced yard with her two dogs to run around and explore, which they seemed to enjoy. But one day we just couldn’t find them anywhere. Finally, we did. They had dug out a small den in the side of one of the hills — a project that must have taken hours, perhaps over several visits — and the three dogs were there, rather scrunched up together in the dark inside. But they seemed quite comfortable and proud of their work, and we had to bribe them with treats to get them to come out.
Years later I watched a short, moving film called Parked (unfortunately no longer available online) by Bowen Islander Sylvaine Zimmerman about how the homeless men (they are almost all men) who spend the night in Stanley Park work together to create safe, dry places in the park where they can sleep, and look out for each other, taking turns on watch duty. My mind immediately flashed back to those three dogs holed up in their self-made den. We are domesticated, but we can revert to feral practices when we need to. The dogs were a tribe. The men were a tribe. They knew. They “remembered” what tribes are for, and why they’re important. That is who we are, behind the clothes and the language and the technologies of buildings and automobiles. Holed up in our unlocked prison dens, safe with our tribe. At least for now.
No one is in charge of this unfolding, this chaotic struggle for safety, for survival, for meaning, this collapse of an entire global civilization, Everything Falling Apart, as it inevitably was going to do.
There is no one to blame. And there is no one to credit for this civilization’s accomplishments, or the achievements of any of its members. The fix was in, millennia ago. This is always how it was going to turn out. We have only ever, always, done the one thing we could possibly have done under the circumstances of the moment, given our biological and cultural conditioning. This is not good or bad. It is just how it is.
What will we be like after civilization’s fall, without the trappings and prostheses of this strange, unnatural “civilized” culture that lets 8 billion of our species survive, as long as we all allow ourselves to be domesticated, constrained, obedient to laws and other abstract artifices, unknowingly imprisoned, and bereft of the joy and wonder of being the wild, free creatures we evolved for millions of years to be? [Sorry, that’s a very long sentence. I think I need an editor.]
My sense is that this brief, 30,000-year-old civilization, characterized by endless, horrific violence, abuse, trauma, sociopathy and mental illness, has been a brief aberration in a billions-year-long stretch of biophilial, mostly peaceful coexistence with the rest of life on earth. I think this because, from what I have learned, that biophilia seems to be the only recipe for healthy survival of a complex diversity of life, and it seems hard wired in almost all life forms.
I think violence and stress were, before civilization, rare and short-lived phenomena, and, most importantly, not prevalent or chronic enough to engrain hatred and trauma in those who had to cope with it.
So, after the Long Emergency, a few millennia from now, if there are any humans left, my guess is that they may be unrecognizable to us as ‘humans’. They will, I hope and pray, not have the affliction that we have — the illusion of self and separation and ‘consciousness’ and superiority. Despite that, they will be more alive than we can ever hope to be.
And, while still being capable of healthy fear and anger when it is needed, they will be incapable of hatred, of depression, of debilitating anxiety, of shame or jealousy or cruelty or sociopathy. They will, I hope and believe, not see themselves as individuals at all, but rather understand themselves to be just a part of the whole, of everything. That will make them no less competent, no less capable of wonder and sorrow, and no less able to evolve and adapt, than our arrogant, benighted species.
One of Einstein’s most famous quotes is:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
I don’t think that task will be accomplished while Everything Falls Apart, and while we are afflicted with our endlessly-traumatizing sense of self and separation.
But a few millennia from now, if we survive, that task will be, I think, our destiny.
*I suppose it’s an affectation to describe this body and my self, seemingly inseparable ’til death us do part, as plural. It’s not a ‘royal’ “we”. Since I came to the startling realization that ‘I’ am not my body, nor am ‘I’ in control of it, I can’t help thinking of us as two. Not very non-dual of me, I know.