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tribal communitiesWhen I was fourteen I went away to summer camp for the first time. For two weeks I lived in a dorm of fourteen girls and had a great time swimming, canoeing, and flirting with the cute guys in the boys’ dorms. We bonded over team challenges and sports activities, bedtime stories and doing each other’s hair. When I got home, I fell into a post-camp depression. I moped around the house, singing camp songs like they were funeral dirges and generally behaving like a teenager. My mother was very frustrated by my drama. I was frustrated that she didn’t get it and there was no one who could sympathize with what I was feeling. There was no Facebook or email back in the dark ages of my childhood. My mother was a little more understanding when, a few days later, I broke out in the most spectacular case of chicken pox that anyone had ever seen. I’m sure it contributed to my morose disposition. My willingness to share the disease also did little to improve my brother’s attitude. It was a fun summer for my mother.

Looking back, I can understand why I was depressed after such an intense bonding experience. I’ve experienced it many times since. I had lost my tribe. Tribes are a group of people that form around a common goal, a shared interest, or shared experience. We all belong to various tribes. Some are based on important ideals that shape who we are. Some are just trivial and fun. I have a work tribe of people that care about corporate finance and leaving early on Fridays. I have a church tribe, a charity tribe that raises money to cure disease, a tribe of people who read actual books, and a Future Wives of Johnny Depp tribe. For two weeks at summer camp, I had turned the thirteen other girls in my dorm into my tribe.

It used to be that social tribes were limited by geography, but that was before the days of the internet. Now a tribe can be formed by anyone, anywhere. In his book Tribes, author and marketing expert Seth Godin talks about the boom of the tribe phenomenon in the last few decades. “Now the Internet eliminates geography. This mean that existing tribes are bigger, but more important, it means that there are now more tribes, smaller tribes, influential tribes, horizontal and vertical tribes, and tribes that never existed before. Tribes you work with, tribes you travel with, tribes you buy with. Tribes that vote, that discuss, that fight. Tribes where everyone knows your name. . . . There are literally thousands of ways to coordinate and connect groups of people that just didn’t exist a generation ago.” Thanks to social media and the internet, the tribe-forming possibilities available to us are endless.

One of the reasons we naturally form tribes is that they support our faith; faith in God, faith in political ideals, faith in iPhones, faith that one day Johnny Depp will make a watchable movie again. We find ways to connect with other people who share our interests and beliefs so that we feel supported and validated. We remind ourselves of our shared faith every time we put on our work uniform, log onto a fan website, or put a “Save the Planet” bumper sticker on our car. When we don’t feel alone in our goals, we believe that change is possible and that is a very important element in happiness.

The difficult thing about this social tool is that life is always changing and there are times when we cannot avoid being disconnected from a tribe. When we graduate from high school or college, we leave that tribe. We may keep in touch with some friends but we no longer have the structure of classes and the common goal of graduation. When you leave a job or move to another city, there is an adjustment period. We can experience a sense of loss when something we have worked hard for is over. High school football seasons always come to an end. Science fairs and ballet recitals come and go. I have many actor friends who go through post-show blues when the run of a play is over and the people who were sharing that experience are not there every day. When you leave a tribe, whether voluntarily or not, many people go through a grief process.

It’s something to keep in mind when our nieces and nephews are struggling with change. It could be something as major as being cut from the basketball team, or as seemingly trivial as missing your friends from a two week summer camp. Losing a tribe is painful. Some losses can be shaken off easily when a new interest comes up, like school starting or One Direction coming to town. We find new tribes all the time. Others may take some time and a sympathetic ear from an aunt. If your niece or nephew isn’t finding a new tribe to follow, do they have the courage to be a leader and start their own? One of my nieces has two blogs about her interests. One started a pony club and another is building a tribe that supports urban gardening. Those are all things that an aunt can easily encourage.

One of my favorite quotes comes from either someone named Frank A. Clark or the rapper Ludacris. The internet can’t decide. It says, “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” Losing a tribe can be an unpleasant obstacle, but it can also lead down a path to amazing opportunities and new friends. Starting something new takes courage and commitment but it just might be the cure to those post-tribe blues.

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Smartphone on white backgroundAt a restaurant the other night my friend Priscilla and I ordered the Korean street tacos (our latest “we live in L.A. and we’re cool” obsession), handed the menus back to the waiter, and began a hilarious conversation . . . on Facebook. I love eating out with Priscilla because we are both addicted to our smart phones. We keep them on the table next to our plates and don’t get offended when the other needs to respond to her text messages. It is understood that she is going to check us in on Facebook while I snap and upload a few photos for posterity. We love our phones so much that it amuses us to instant message while sitting a few feet apart. We are not alone. Most of our friends in their 30s and 40s act like ridiculous teenagers too.

What I don’t like are people who carry on about technology destroying our society and how we don’t communicate anymore. Apparently Facebook is disabling our ability to connect and text messages are making us illiterate. I have a master’s degree and a colorful social life. So the naysayers can mind their own business and back off my iPhone. With this thought in mind, I picked up a book (with actual paper pages) by sociologist Claude S. Fischer called America Calling; A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. The book takes a look at the history of the telephone from the point of view of the social change it brought to American society. It turns out, when the new invention first gained traction as a household staple, people carried on about how it was going to destroy our social skills and disconnect families by interrupting dinner. The debate (and fear mongering) has been going on for decades. Fischer’s conclusion is that technology doesn’t decide how our society is going to behave but rather we use it to further our own lifestyle agenda:

“…while a material change as fundamental as the telephone alters the conditions of daily life, it does not determine the basic character of that life. Instead, people turn new devices to various purposes, even ones that the producers could hardly have foreseen or desired. As much as people adapt their lives to the changed circumstances created by a new technology, they also adapt that technology to their lives. The telephone did not radically alter American ways of life; rather, Americans used it to more vigorously pursue their characteristic ways of life” (pg 5).

Technology does not shape our lives; we use it to our own purposes to enhance the lifestyle we have chosen. You can’t blame the phone if you don’t like where society is going. I found another quote that supports my position so bear with me:

“Historian George Daniels puts the challenge broadly, ‘No single invention . . . ever changed the direction in which a society was going . . . [Moreover,] the direction in which society is going determines the nature of its technological inventions . . . Habits seem to grow out of other habits for more directly than they do out of gadgets” (pg 9. Yes, I made it to page 9).

So there, you people who put sad things on the Internet about how we are all plugged in and missing out on life. I almost did a happy dance about finding a bona fide sociologist who supports my phone addiction. Then I started thinking about how I am really living my life, which is never advisable.

My iPhone has apps for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, Comedy Central and YouTube. I have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Skype, Entertainment Weekly, and iBooks. No pointless meme or gratuitous waste of time is going on out there that I don’t know about. I have two televisions, two Tivos, a Blu-Ray player that streams Netflix, a desktop computer, a laptop, and an iPad with the Netflix app—for when I’m roaming around my 900 square foot downtown apartment. It’s important to have a go-to plan when forced out of range from the TV for time-wasting activities like showers or meal preparation. My Bluetooth is hidden by my hair so I can wander around the grocery store without anyone realizing I am streaming the most recent TV show that I am binge-listening. I don’t binge-watch Netflix. I watch the first few episodes so that I get the gist and then binge-listen to 32 seasons of Gossip Girl while jogging or driving home from work. You know, because I wouldn’t want to waste all that time in front of the TV.

This is the technology that does not control my life but is used to create the life I want. It is carefully installed in my house, car and shower stall to ensure that I am never alone with my thoughts. What does an almost 40-year-old single widow, whose life is centered around work and other people’s children, want with alone time? Nothing good can come of that. I might be willing to admit that the emotionally manipulative video on YouTube about the man who does not see his son’s touchdown and the woman who misses the opportunity to make friends at the bus stop because they were staring at their phones, might have a point. Maybe I’m missing something by constantly numbing the voice in my head with pop culture.

In my defense, the one time I make a real effort to disconnect from technology is around my nieces and nephews. I try to give them my full attention. I’ve caught myself picking up the phone while we are at their favorite sushi restaurant that has their photo on the wall, watching Frozen for the tenth time, or riding skateboards up and down the street like they don’t know I’m too old for that. It’s a hard habit to break but it’s important. I’d like to think that if I had children of my own, I would discard the mind-numbing technology and give all my energy to them, so I am trying to do that with the children that I do have in my life. Also, I thoughtlessly put my password into my phone while my niece was watching and ruined the world’s best 4 digit combination, so I won’t be caught doing that again.

It’s a struggle to control my addiction around my nieces and nephews and leave my phone in my bag. But I don’t want to be the one who teaches them this social behavior, which I am finally willing to admit is somewhat detrimental. I want them to know that when they are with me, they are my first priority and not the video of a cat playing the piano. The one question that I can’t avoid is, why don’t I do that for my friends?

I am willing to own up to the fact that I use technology as a crutch, but making dramatic changes to my routine is easier said than done. It is my addiction after all. However, I have made efforts in little areas. I signed up for a writing program that sends me daily spelling tests and grammar lessons to combat Word and Apple’s autocorrect. I deleted the CNN app and installed the BBC, so no more alerts when Justin Bieber gets arrested or Kimye says something stupid. I get a daily email with a spiritual lesson to think about instead. Now my technology is expanding my mind and I can feel better about flopping in front of the TV when my day of high culture (or let’s face it, adulthood) is over.

I will never feel bad about making my Facebook friends read my conversations with Priscilla about how my tacos taste like sandpaper so we should probably jet and get our American Idol on. My best friend and I have an unspoken pact in our phone obsession. But I will admit that technology, social media and pop culture are not as harmless as I’d like to think. It is very easy to let it shape our lives, rather than using it to enhance the productive lives we aspire to.

WantAdsMy sister-in-law took the kids out of town to visit their grandparents for a few days, leaving my brother at home to fend for himself. Conversations with my brother these days are usually peppered with distracting side notes such as, “Stop blowing bubbles in your milk and eat your carrots,” “No, you may not be excused while everyone is still eating,” and “Where are your pants?” So we took the opportunity to hang out together and have an adult conversation. He very kindly offered to take me out to do things he knows I like to do but I said, “I get to do whatever I want every day. Pick something you want to do.” I quietly teased “and I’ll pretend it’s not lame” but that is not pertinent to this story. I was envisioning myself building a chicken coop or a rabbit warren or one of his other I-can-be-a-financial-broker-and-a-farmer-in-Los-Angeles projects. But he is also an artist so we had a lovely evening at an art gallery in Laguna Beach.

Ever since then, I have been chewing on the idea that I get to do whatever I want, every day.  I am single, childless and financially stable. I sold my house and moved into an apartment so that I would not be tied to yard work on the weekends. If I get a text that my friends are going out, I can blow off any chores I was planning to do. I don’t have to explain that Nordstrom bag to anyone. If I want to go to the post office in my pajamas, there’s no one around to suggest a more appropriate course of action. Besides getting up every day, grooming myself, and going to work, there is very little in my life that I absolutely have to do. I’m not sure you can get any closer to complete freedom without moving into the woods, throwing away your smart phone and refusing to pay taxes. I’m in a strange stage in my life when I am free to follow my heart and do just about anything. That should make me happy, right? Isn’t that living the dream? My married friends who spend their days picking up toys and wiping noses with their t-shirts certainly seem to think so.

It turns out that total personal freedom doesn’t equate to happiness. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. It changes as you go through life but we all still need purpose to feel secure and fulfilled. Young people generally do not have a problem finding their purpose. Their lives are full with getting an education, finding a career, and learning how to hold a fork on a date. However, as you get older you can find that what you thought was your purpose in life may have taken a detour. The dream career you went to school for was fun for a while but not realistic. You are so deep into the responsible career you ended up with that you are set on this path for life. The husband you lovingly cared for passed away. The house you spent years remodeling into your own castle was too much for you on your own. You spent years working late into the night after work to earn your master’s degree and never intend to think that hard again. These may be my personal detours but I’m sure you can relate. Life changes all the time and it often takes away those things that you think give your life meaning. Coping with that change can be hard.

What really matters is the people you have in your life and how you contribute to their happiness and wellbeing. That’s hardly a revelation but it is easy to forget sometimes. I don’t know about you, but it takes effort for me not to focus on what I don’t have and instead pour my energy into what I do have. Right now my life is pretty uncomplicated, but one day it will all change again and I will have a whole new set of goals and responsibilities to focus on. Maybe I’ll fall in love again. Maybe I’ll move to a third world country and build schools. Maybe I’ll adopt an extremely needy cat. The possibilities are endless and that gives me hope for the future. But what gives me my sense of purpose right now are my nieces and nephews. Being a good aunt is my job, my responsibility. I am fortunate that I have a brother and cousins with kids nearby and I take great satisfaction in giving them new experiences and being a good example. OK, maybe just the new experiences thing, but you know what I mean. Without a family of my own, I have found a way to feel needed and useful.

The good thing is that you don’t have to have a flesh and blood family or lots of nieces and nephews to get the same sense of purpose in your life. You can find a community to connect to and people to care for, but you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to go and find it. I didn’t always live near my family and I had to put myself out there. I mentored a child through my town’s family services department. I volunteered at a pet shelter. I had an elderly lady on my street that I checked in on every few days. For my most recent purpose-finding adventure, I joined a charity organization that makes me get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to train for a half marathon that I am going to run . . . on purpose.  If you feel like no one needs you and your presence on this planet is not important, you haven’t been proactive about it. Your sense of purpose and fulfillment is out there if you are willing to try new things to find it.

Last weekend I was sleeping in my niece’s room in her little twin bed, surrounded by ponies and dolls. I heard the door open and a little person sneak across the room. I opened one eye just enough to see the clock. 5 a.m. Ugh. It’s funny how you can tell which child is nearby from the time of day and the speed of the sneak-up. My three-year-old nephew Stanley climbed into bed with me, snuggled in and went right back to sleep. For the next two hours I stared at his little face while perched uncomfortably in the three inches of bed that were allotted to me. I briefly considered getting down on the floor, and then marveled that I even had that thought. I was putting myself out and suffering for this little boy that had a perfectly good bed of his own. It was more important to have him near me and let him sleep in than to sleep myself.

Now, that is what I call a sense of purpose.