I’ve been getting bad about posting lately; this one has been sitting in my queue for a couple of weeks now. I originally intended it to be the first part of a longer thought which I now recognize may never happen. Apologies in advance…
Wait a second. You’re reading this of your own free will. Apology withdrawn!
Two weekends ago, I rode a metric century:
A metric century for cyclists-well, it’s not that far. For you non-cyclists, and those who didn’t learn the metric system in high school, it’s a 65 mile ride (more or less—mine ended up being 68 due to a small navigational issue). The ride drew a nice circle around New Haven, CT, starting at West Rock and curving around a circle that included Durham and Guilford, finally heading west along the coast roads and north back into New Haven to East Rock.
I’ve always thought the person who named “West Rock” and “East Rock” showed a stunning lack of imagination (I am reminded of Wash’s “this is a good land, and we shall call it ‘this land’”). Ah, well. It was a very hilly, windy day. Hills I’ve learned not to mind, because, after all, you will ultimately crest the hill and there will be a payoff. Gravity is your enemy on the way up, but your dear, dear friend on the way down. Coming off one significant rise, I hit 38+ MPH. Wind, on the other hand, generally is only helpful when it’s directly behind you, which it seldom is. You pedal into an invisible force field that makes you feel weak. It’s demoralizing.
On this particular ride, once we hit the coastal section of the ride, it was solid wind, and not behind us. You just had to push into it, and feel it rejecting you.
And now for the unsubtle segue…
This got me thinking about groups. Groups are important, because we all want to be accepted. Now, a group can be anything from a dyad (you and one other person) to an organization (ideally, pronounced the way Arlo Guthrie says it in Alice’s Restaurant). Social movements (see my earlier entry) are groups. So are religions, neighborhoods, youth groups, gangs, cults, associations, bands, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseum. What could be more obvious?
Yet not all groups are by any means the same. Some groups are nominal, and some are self-aware; some are exclusive and some are inclusive.
Some reject, and some accept.
Those that reject are like the wind; you must meet very strict requirements to become part of the group. These requirements are often things like making a public confession of a particular religious belief. Once you do that, you have the wind at your back (and, notably, you have drawn a line that separates you from many other people). What’s more, the group will monitor you and keep you on course.
There are greater or lesser variations on this theme: I think of monastic religious orders, the LDS (Mormon) church, or religions we think of as “cults.” Militaries qualify: indeed, basic training is as much about breaking you from the past as it is about preparing you to be a soldier. Further, there is an emphasis on continuing sacrifice often involved in such groups. Genuine social movements are often of this sort; fraternities and sororities on college campuses partake in this definition to some extent, though their monitoring is generally less, and they share certain aspects of a second type of group.
The second type of group has a steep entry, like a hill, but once you make it in, the costs are a great deal lower. These are membership organizations, a lot (but not exactly) like the ones I described as MINOs in my entry about social movements. Often the steep entry is payable in cash only. Sometimes it involves the consent of existing members. In any event, though, there may be a sense of membership on the part of a participant, but seldom a sense of continuing obligation.
Toennies would see these as aligning with, respectively, Gemeinschaft and Gesesllschaft—community and society. And would likely see the latter, more “isolating” type of membership as reflective of the society in which we live.
It’s probably a good idea at this point to note that Max Weber, who used the term ideal type, meant by that the fact that we seldom see ‘pure’ examples of any type. The LDS church, for example, is neither gemeinschaft nor gesellschaft, but a combination of both. Likewise your local grocery store. It’s rare, but you sometimes get a nice fast downhill with a strong tailwind (though, ironically, much less rare to get the opposite!).
All of this is preface. What we usually see is groups that combine wind and hills. Most important for me, among these groups, is a combination premised largely on acceptance. Some such groups are formal or quasi-formal organizations (think of the Alcoholics Anonymous network, especially as explored in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest). AA is not ideal-typical; you have to walk up that first hill to become a member. Nevertheless, key to the way AA works is the fact that aside from this one item (which may, granted, be central) the group accepts you the way you are. Some of those accepting groups have also been of the windy variety. Or maybe it’s a matter of change over time. Or perception changing with age?
As I think back on my own life, it’s remarkable how acceptance groups have been important in shaping my life. Perhaps yours as well.
I was one of those kids who had a miserable existence through junior high school (what we now think of as middle school) because I had an easily triggered temper and was eminently teasable. I had no physical skills, so I was dead last in “choosing sides for basketball”—or anything else.
Although I had one or two misfit friends before, the first accepting group I can remember is one I fell into sort of by accident. Being an isolated kid, like many others I read a lot, and that took me into science-fictional worlds. So, in the late 1960s, I pestered my dad into buying me a rocket. By that I mean a solid-fuel, reusable, build-it-out-of-balsa-and-cardboard rocket. These were cool. There was a group that flew rockets almost every week that met in a church basement near the university, and I managed to get there once or twice a month for the meetings, and almost every week for the launches. It was made up mostly of college-age guys who were, in a way, proto-geeks. Some were hippies, some were technology students, some were radio-control modelers. We all loved rockets. And as long as you were willing to put days of work into something that was likely as not going to end up high in a tree for the rest of its life, that was cool. Acceptance. I was 11 or 12, and I felt like part of a group for the first time.
Then I met a friend, another geek, in junior high. Bruce became my best friend from 7th through 11th grade. I got him interested in rockets—which, perfectionist that he was—he preferred to build than to fly. And he got me interested in electronics, and more specifically, in ham radio. A small group of 7th-grade geeks (acceptance!) worked together to learn morse code and pass the FCC exam. We had our tickets, and the world opened up to us! Still, it was a limited world (things you don’t [or didn’t] talk about on the air: sex, politics, and religion, which greatly limited its appeal as I grew up in the early 1970s).
As I started high school, though, new interests were stirring, and I left (mostly) these technological acceptances behind. I now think about junior high as “the wonderful thousand days” (or so) in which I learned that it was at least possible not to be alone. High school was hard, because the most important groups were those that brought you together with those of the opposite sex. Something for which tech acceptance had prepared me not at all. It was no longer teasing that hurt, but being shut out of opportunities to meet those obscure objects of desire.
The first important accepting group in high school that I can remember clearly was a Lutheran youth group that had a lot of members who attended my school. It all started because at the same time I was getting involved with the other accepting group of my high school years, the theater group (we thespians not only acknowledged, but reveled in the fact that we were losers). I became helplessly infatuated with a girl who was a member of both.
I got the impression that she wouldn’t date me unless I was a Christian, and while my family was by no means religious, we were at least nominally Jewish (a fact that had probably contributed to my isolation earlier in school). Knowing nearly nothing of Christianity, I started by reading the copy of the New Testament that she gave me cover to cover in the course of a school day, and felt somehow instantly liberated. Christianity wasn’t, as I had thought, about self-flagellation for imagined sins, and wasn’t solely the province of uptight bible-bashers. It was about peace.
In retrospect, this was in part an artifact of the translation I was reading, and in part, an artifact of the times (this was the era of the hippy-associated Jesus People/Charismatic movement, and there was more joy in the churches than there had been—or would be—for a very long time. In any event, I became a Christian. She still wouldn’t go out with me, and while I carried a torch, I began to care less, because I became part of a group that felt incredibly accepting. My hair was long? I decided to grow a beard? You smoke? You prefer a different translation? No big deal. Once each of us had gone up that hill, we had the wind at our backs. Yes, we watched over each other when one of us began to stray a little, but it was honestly done with a gentleness I haven’t seen in many years.
A good part of this was the youth leader, and the fact that he oriented the group heavily toward music (what we called “praise”). This was where I first heard guitar (he played a mean 12-string) and fell in love with it. Before this part of my life was over, I would have my own Christian Rock band.
In any event, as I said, the girl in question was also part of the theater group, and if you were in high school at the time, decades before Glee!, you know as well as I do that the theater was a dumping ground for misfits. Of the three principle groups in the school—jocks, brains, and burnouts—we had a little of each, but always the folks who were marginal within each category (this was true of the youth group too, I realize as I write this). The theater was the place where we could come out of our shells and be something else. We could aspire to a greatness that didn’t depend on physicality, intellect, or the ability to let go. This was more of a hill group—you simply showed up and associated with the other losers, and you were in. There was virtually no monitoring, something that caused a little friction with the (slightly) more boundary-oriented Christian group, like the girl who got pregnant her senior year, or the student director who warmed us up with Chairman Mao exercises, or the stage manager who spiked the punch at his cast party with vodka and enjoyed watching the results.
Both groups, though, let me in, and here, more than 35 years later, I still think of myself in their terms. They remain, in sociological terms, some of my most important reference groups. They also changed me more than I would realize. Had I not encountered those groups, I might have become an engineer. But they altered my course considerably, and for that I will always thank them.