Born for Adversity

We live in a time when everyone watches their own back.  When we would rather protect ourselves as individuals (and families) than our nation, than the thing that is bigger than us.  It was not always so.

The late Charles Tilly wrote, in the context of social movements, about the role of what he called catnet.  That is, to over-simplify, there are groups that society defines–categories, or cats.  There are networks of communication, or nets.  But a social movement, a transformation of the social order, only becomes possible when cat and net overlap.  If you’re blue but you don’t think of your fate as being tied up with that of other blue people, you’re merely in a category.  If you discuss Marxist politics with a bunch of other people, you’re in a net.  If you’re blue and you discuss Marxist politics with other blue people, then you’re in a catnetand it is possible that something might spur you into action.

In this post, I’d like to think something that creates a catnet.

There’s a Billy Joel song called “Goodnight Saigon,” in which the chorus states the protagonist’s promise that “We would all go down together.”  Here’s one verse and the chorus:

We had no cameras to shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe and played our Doors tapes
And it was dark, so dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write

And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together

I was too young (by about four years) for Vietnam, plus I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1971 and was thus automatically immune, and this entry isn’t about the war in any event.

It’s about the role of adversity in forming catnets.  I’m going to talk about a small adversity–nothing compared to Vietnam–and the impact it had on me and some others.

And it starts with all going up, together:

We all went up together

We all went up together

This the road on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix river.

Back in 2003, I rode the last AIDS ride in the Midwest, maybe the last in the country.

I signed up because I happened to live in the Midwest, and because I wanted a challenge.  I wanted to test myself against ~500 miles of road.  I raised something like $2,500 to qualify for the ride, my spouse dropped me and my bike and a few changes of clothing off in St. Paul, and I was all set to go.  Little did I realize!

There would be days of Southwestern Wisconsin hills (this part of Wisconsin is known as the “driftless zone” because it was never flattened by glaciers, and so has some rather spectacular terrain).  Three 100+ mile days in a row.  There would be heat, and an unusual headwind from the East.  There would be a night of thunderstorms to drench our tents and our clothing and leave us looking like refugees wrapped in Mylar blankets on the gym floor of a nearby school:

After the Rain

The day after the rain, there was incredible heat (this was Red Day, also the day of the headwind) and another 100 miles.  How much sleep did we ride on?  Ever try to sleep when tinfoil is rustling all around, and thunder is booming outside?  I remember finding one dude with his head stuck in a gym locker, trying to keep the noise level down.

The day after the rain, it was hot and dry.  Here’s a bunch of riders under some of the only shade we had all day, near the 50-mile mark for that day.  We were cooked:

Riders in the shade, 50 miles in.

Hot. Hot hot hot.

By the way, on the fence in the background you can see that the crew had laid out all of riders’ possessions to try to get them dry.  They never really did dry, but when you’re that tired, a wet sleeping bag isn’t going to deter you.

The day after the heat, we rode down toward Chicago–and the sky opened up and poured.  We were drenched, freezing; and then the sun came out and the heat and humidity rose.  At the end of the ride, I looked like this:

The End

The End

If I’m trying to make it sound like riding from St. Paul to Chicago was hard, yeah, I am.  It was hard.  And that, of course, was the point.  In 1962, John F. Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

We did it, too.  I don’t mean to compare the AIDS Ride to going to the Moon or the Vietnam war.  It was far less than that.  But we found something in that ride–some 1,200 of us–that could also be found in those much more superhuman efforts.

Doing hard things is worthwhile.  But I don’t think just doing hard things is worthwhile.  Last night, for example, I rode up an incredibly (for me) challenging hill.  My legs hurt most of the way, and I wanted–I really wanted to quite.  I didn’t.  And when I got to the top, I was really satisfied.  But I did not have that something that emerged from the AIDS Ride.  Why not?  No cat.  No net.

Key terms:  “We.”  “Us.” “Our.” “Together.”  Doing hard things together builds a kind of unity.  There was the guy on that first hill above who stood there, wearing a “King of the Mountains” jersey and yelling at us that this was his hill, and “Nobody walks up my hill!”  At the end of the first day, there was a significant slope up to the camp, and I watched one rider go down the hill repeatedly, pulling tired riders in his wake (they could draft) and inspiring still more to climb that hill.  When riders were hours late getting into camp, we cheered them on.  A collection of disparate individuals became, for the course of that effort, became something new.

Kennedy knew it.  I learned it. Sociologists are well-aware of it.  In the fire of adversity, you bond with others.  You becomecat and net.  Perhaps that’s why I find things so disturbing in our country today.  We all acknowledge there are problems, but rather than band together to solve them, we’re all protecting our own.  We don’t want to take a risk.  We don’t realize (yet) that we’re all in this cat together.

There’s an old saw about how a ship is safe in port, but that’s not what ships are for.  Just so with human beings:

You were born for adversity.  Embrace it.

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