When 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.