Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Importance of the Tribe

Humans are a tribal species. Being an endurance athlete and lover of minimalism, born to run, and the running man theory I love the idea of humans in tight tribal groups roaming the earth and surviving off hunter gatherer skills. Evolving to an agrarian society where farming sustained us was an obvious next step with our higher order thinking skills, but it is interesting to me that we kept family and tribal units in place. Back in college a concept that was communicated to me by some folks was this idea that true human strength comes from not having to rely on others.

The idea goes that there are degrees of self reliance, and the people I spoke to on the subject seemed to think that the greatest amount of self reliance (needing no people at all, not even for social purpose.) also were the strongest. In this sense, considering the ability to be alone not for long stretches -- but completely -- to be a true virtue.

That idea may really work for some, but it isn't an idea that I can even really fathom completely. I rely so much on other people throughout my everyday life. I have a strong network of friends and family who offer all sorts of support, as I do for them. My work colleagues are some of the most reliable and supportive people I know, and with varying degrees of resilience I know I have people in my social circle who can help me out with any one thing.

This is part of the reason I think the secular god parents were so important. Any situation my child finds herself in, I want her to have people to turn to who have experienced similar things. People who can offer perspective. I'll offer a couple of anecdotes to back this up. This isn't a science blog, so anecdotal evidence will have to suffice.

My wife and I have thrown a thanksgiving party for our friends for about nine years now. We typically buy and prepare all the food and do the entire event as a family thanksgiving. "Friendsgivings" are pretty common events now, but they weren't as ubiquitous when we were younger, so as much of a hipster as it makes me I feel like we got to that party early. It was a good one to set. It has always been a really good time. It has more closely resembled a family thanksgiving over the last couple of years especially, as some friends move to other parts of the country and make the trek back to catch up. These people are really important to me. They're a family I chose, and I would do anything for them. I didn't realize how much that was reciprocated until this year (2015.)

In 2015 we decided to do the event pot-luck because with my wife being seven months pregnant we didn't feel we could do all of the work ourselves. I prepped and made the turkey still (which I don't eat, but that's another thing altogether) and got things set up so folks could use whatever they wanted of our kitchen equipment. People arrived early, spent a lot of time catching up, preparing food, helping to lay out the table decorations. It was a great time.

We sat down at the table, and I gave a brief toast. I don't usually do those. In my head I build them up to be these big sentimental things, and I'll go out on my long runs and write and re-write versions of the toast where I tell my friends how much they mean to me. Ultimately when the time comes I can't imagine burdening the event with that kind of solemnity and somberness and nostalgia so I usually make a couple of quick jokes say "cheers" and we dig into the meal and social stimulation.

This time was a little different in that I did thank everyone for their help not only with the meal but their support as we started this new chapter of our lives. It was sappy, no doubt, but also brief.

Once the actual dinner was over a few folks waved my wife into the living room, where she sat down in a big chair. Before she knew it most everyone was in the living room or dining room sitting around, talking and catching up. All the dish washing, putting away leftovers, storing decorations, moving furniture to its original spots, had all been divided up and thoroughly conquered.

The next day a friend came back over to help me put up our Christmas tree. It took us a couple of hours with the decorating and such, but it was such a tremendous help. This same friends came over a week after the New Year started to help me break down the tree. I was so sleep deprived at that point that I had gone to take a nap, my wife had the baby, and when I woke up said friend had packed the entire tree, all the decorations, and was vacuuming the floor of my living room.

It is hard to explain the immense feeling of gratitude in that situation.

Humans are a really tribal species. Back in the day we had tribes, grouped ourselves by common ancestors, resource needs, whatever. Now we group ourselves based on social compatibility, shared interest and cultural similarity. I actually really like having a diverse group of people around me, so I'm not so sure about cultural similarity. But culture is complicated, so I guess whatever works. My friends are people I met mostly through school, music, or maybe video game interests. Some of them I've known for a very long time, and some of them it feels like I've known for a very long time. We have a million variables in our existence which allow us to find compatibility with any number of people.

Running proves this to me time and time again. The number of times I've been in a race, running along someone and not talking -- just adding power to the pack. Instinctually, we fall into a rhythm where our form tightens up to match one another. I don't say, "Mind if I run with you?" I'm self-conscious. I would never want to assume my performance equal or greater than someone else's. We fall into form, begin shuffling through the course.

By the time we are three quarters through the race -- if the field has thinned down and I'm running with one person -- by that point I usually know their name, a few other races they've run, and sometimes we even share strategy and begin acting as pack hunters. Sometimes we don't speak the same language, and that makes things really interesting. But generally there is a sense of trenches camaraderie, and a desire to help each other through.

"We can drop a few of these people on the next climb. Just need to hold strength over the rise so we don't get overtaken on the other side,"

So now you're in a situation where you are really in a pack in the race, even if it is just a pack of two. Suddenly you feel like a different animal -- not a loner -- an animal with a pack and a sense of purpose. Maybe you started off unsure of where you'd place, or how you would perform, but in this moment having someone to talk to can distract you or even offer an acknowledgement that it is OK to be where you are. Knowing someone in a race can change the entire experience for the better.

We evolved to be with each other. We evolved to support each other, share strategy, and grow together. It is an idea I find tremendously comforting -- even among a crowd of complete strangers, you are never completely alone.

Asking for help is something that can be really hard. I never really appreciated that until a couple of months ago. Things started to really pile up on us, with my wife running on very little sleep, and with me trying to handle everything in the house as well as feeling the pressure to take care of my wife and child. Our families have not come through for us with regards to the support. I guess it isn't really possible to the level that we expected, but it ended up being far less support than we expected.

I ended up reaching out to multiple friends on the Sunday of MLK weekend and saying, "I'm calling in all my favors. If I ever did anything for you, I need you to do something for me now,"

My friends are incredible. They agreed to take a night of the week to come by and help me with the chores. In exchange I'll plan to have some crock pot meals going to that they can eat. Honestly, though, just having help to tidy the house, run the dishwasher, change the laundry all makes a huge difference. It means my wife and I can focus on our dear girl. My wife can focus on getting some sleep (and the postpartum mood issues make that difficult enough, more on that in later posts.) I can focus on getting in a run, getting some dinner in me, and then getting to sleep so I can relieve my wife in the early hours of the morning.

I find that I'm battling the drive to clean my house on days that my friends are coming over to do that -- I know that sounds silly. I'm conditioned to clean my house when we're having company. My wife has to remind me to sit down and chill when it is one of those evenings. No sense in burning myself out. Additionally, the time I spend doing chores is time I spend away from my wife, and we need to be together to aid in her recovery.

I am very grateful for the support of my friends. They have been incredible. If I do actually survive training through this winter, my performance at Big Sur will be dedicated to them.

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