Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Finding Our Tribes

We're all inherently tribal; it's part of human nature and not inherently good or bad. Here's a piece I published recently in Bay Windows. My columns are also on-line at http://www.baywindows.com.

Finding Our Tribes

Judah Leblang/2007
Word count: 855

Finally, blessedly, after a month or six weeks of “false spring,” it seems that Mother Nature is smiling on us here in New England. Hardy daffodils are swaying in the warm breezes, and the sun—that wonderful golden orb—is sending temperatures into the 60s and 70s. For me, spring means longer days, better moods, and major league baseball.

Though I’m not, and never was, a real athlete, I grew up with the ritual of going to baseball games in a cold cavernous Lakefront Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie, and of rooting for my hometown team. In short, I’m a little league dropout, possessed of a weak arm and a strong fear of getting hit by one of those baseballs I couldn’t catch. Still, I’m an excellent fan and enjoy watching the pros, not only because they fill out their uniforms. Growing up, I actually cared, and still care, about the outcome of the games. Unfortunately, my team was the hapless Cleveland Indians, who missed the playoffs for 41 consecutive years, all during my childhood, youth, young adulthood, etc.

Most of my gay friends don’t get it; they respond to the opening of baseball season with a muffled yawn or a rousing chorus of “ho-hum.” I have to call my cousin back home, or meet another displaced Clevelander here in the Northeast to “talk Cleveland” and share my pain. Why do I hold on, especially when the Red Sox are an excellent team with a large payroll and my Indians are mediocre and cash-strapped?

I’m cursed with a strong sense of loyalty. Even after a span of 20 years, I’ve been unable to transfer my allegiance to the Red Sox; I still follow “the Tribe.” The Indians remain my crush, holding me in their grip like a bad boyfriend with good intentions, unable to follow through and give me the thrill of a World Series Championship, (though they were only two outs away in 1997).

I was reflecting on the concept of tribes this past week, as I sat in my synagogue at Friday night services after months away, and as I watched the awful news from Virginia Tech on TV. We all have multiple identities---some of them more serious or weighted—others light or silly. I am, among others, a Jew, a gay man, a Clevelander, middle-aged, a writer, and so on. Human beings are inherently tribal; we long for association and connection, and as I looked around the synagogue I used to attend regularly, I felt both related to and disconnected from the people around me.

I’m not an especially observant Jew, and given my life circumstances over the past year, I’m somewhat skeptical of an all-powerful Higher Power. Sitting in the sanctuary, I felt my difference as a single gay man in a room full of straight couples and families. At the same time, some of these people are my friends, and we share our common Jewish background, history, and culture.

Similarly, on Sunday mornings I often go to Arlington Street Church in Boston. There, I connect with other gays and lesbians, with people who understand that central part of me, and who I can relate to in a different way than the folks at temple. And yet, sometimes I feel like a foreigner there, too, the proverbial wandering Jew, as I sit in my pew and sing the Christian-themed hymns, as the minister speaks of Easter and Christmas.

We all face choices, I believe, in looking for ways of connecting or disconnecting with the people around us. I’m guilty of labeling those who disagree with me—Republicans, foes of same-sex marriage, Yankee fans—as bad people. I’ve personally driven by the Catholic Church near my home and harbored evil thoughts toward this institution that seeks to take away my rights, which judges me and all gays as “less than” and undeserving. In the days after the Constitutional Conventions, I noticed this sense of ill will churning in my stomach, tightening my solar plexus. Carrying that level of rage and frustration wasn’t hurting “them;” I was actually harming myself. I felt some of that same rage after the “stolen” presidential election of 2000, when I lost all faith in the Supreme Court and the fairness of our national elections.

And yet, some of those folks—conservatives, Christians, and others—may be writers, Indians fans, gay or lesbian. Potentially, one on one, I could find common ground with some of them. During these turbulent times, when so many things are done in the name of hate, self-righteousness, and fear of the “other,” we could all benefit from a little compassion, a little understanding for those who are different from us.

Maybe someday we can truly celebrate our differences and acknowledge that underneath, we’re all part of the human family. Ultimately, I have to start with myself, and work on my own self-righteousness, and the way I create separation from others.

I hope that someday, though all of our tribes will not meld into oneness, we will learn to respect each other and get along. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.


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