Life feels a bit surreal at the moment.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve recently spiraled into a deep media pit, consuming as much commentary and 140-character punchlines as possible in an attempt to make sense of our current political climate. It’s momentous. It’s frightening. It’s raw. And it's an invitation for reflection.
Perhaps, like me, you’re asking yourself 2 questions: How did we arrive at this place? And now what?
When I went to Washington, D.C. to intern for a senator as an eager, naive recent high school grad, I was wildly optimistic about pursuing a career in politics. But once I arrived, I realized that most (though not all) of the people around me were driven more by power than altruism (shocking, I know). But it was a call to public service that led me there and later guided me toward the Peace Corps.
“Public service.” It almost feels like a quaint, antiquated term, doesn’t it? Something the Roosevelts did and your grandparents talked about. Now, we largely resign ourselves to “social media activism” -- a like, a follow, a cause-driven profile picture. Some criticize this armchair activism and finger-wag its laziness. Others herald it as the new normal. But is a post to your network the new civic engagement? Is there still merit in in-person communing?
In Sebastian Junger’s latest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, he laments that modern urban and suburban life limits our outlets for “tribal bonding” and meaningful connection -- to each other, to nature, and to a cause larger than ourselves.
During our battle with the Native American Indians, a surprising number of Americans joined Indian culture, and yet the reverse was almost never the case. “The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing -- it seems obvious on the face of it -- but why Western society is so unappealing,” Junger asks. Loyalty, courage, and cohesive community largely define tribal life, while Western society is rooted in individualism and affluence, but also greed, isolation, and solitude. Even in dense urban dwellings or tethered to online “communities,” we often feel alone.
Junger references “self-determination theory,” which argues that we need three things to be happy: a feeling of authenticity, competence, and connectivity. But how do we achieve this?
There’s no shortage of self-help gurus out there telling you to “serve yourself” and “take care of you.” And I agree that self-care is crucial to delivering your best possible self to your loved ones and the world at large. But too often we stop short -- we commit to the self-care, but fail to fully engage in what that self-love has prepared us to offer: service to the greater good.
Outside of sports team allegiances, we are largely a detribalized society. We look out for ourselves and our immediate dependents, without regard for the society in which we live, or the generations yet to come. And if you think I’m just peddling some super hippy leftist jargon, you need look no further than the military to find a group of well-groomed adherents to the tribal mentality. Hardship demands reliability, builds trust, and nurtures resilience. Tribalism -- a sense of belonging and a call to serve -- appeals on an evolutionary level to all political, economic, and cultural persuasions. Prosocial acts actually release happy hormones. And diving into the arena, as the great Teddy Roosevelt encouraged us to do, gives us purpose and not only enhances the world in which we live, but our own mental health.
It is companionship, not commerce, that sustains us. It is connection and a feeling of worth amongst our community that gives us a sense of purpose. And it is service, not complacency, that satiates us.
But service takes effort. And effort is work. And most people feel over-worked already -- either time-poor or financially restrained or both. So service becomes the job of “someone else” and someday, while we sit comfortably behind our screens, ridiculing and judging the worthiness of those who are serving -- just not to our liking.
Perhaps, like me, you have been feeling an itch as of late: a call to serve. To be doing more, without really knowing what the more should be or look like (and will it take much time cause I have yoga at 7 and really need to get out some more emails and…). Squeezing service into our already packed schedules might feel as unappealing and restricting as fitting into your skinny jeans. We like the idea of it, but sweatpants are so much more comfortable.
But “comfort,” ironically, does not always (or usually) fulfill us. It puts us in a sort of comfort coma, numb to both the highs and lows. And isolation feels less like self-care and more like self-sabotage.
So what might practical, sustainable service look like in your life? The good news is it goes far beyond soup kitchen sessions (though those are great, too!).When you reframe service as a return to tribalism, its meaning broadens and its contribution not only to others but to your own life deepens.
What does this look like in action? I travel a lot, so as of late, wherever I go, I seek out a meditation group. Meditation is a wonderful, (seemingly) self-serving act -- that actually makes you better equipped to serve those around you. And by taking an otherwise solitary practice and doing it in a group of like-minded individuals, you score both meditation zen and prosocial dopamine boosts. And lest you think I’m all zen, all the time, I also seek out karaoke nights wherever I find myself. Because nothing builds bridges or forms bonds amongst otherwise disparate individuals faster than a communal singing session.
But perhaps the most powerful (and accessible) form of tribalism-as-service that you can participate in is a commitment to conversation. (Remember conversation?) Not just the digital, one-directional variety, but in person, where you breathe on each other, form scent-memories, subconsciously register voice frequencies, make eye contact, read body language and engage in prolonged verbal exchanges. I like to invite people over, cook for them, and find something to celebrate. Playing host is a lost art form that facilitates the formation of an instant tribe.
Conversation is a bit like books in the 21st century: We think of them fondly, but usually settle for an article or brief scan of the headlines. So go retro and be a long-form pioneer: Commit to repeated acts of conversation. Create space for meaningful face time and you will serve others as much as yourself. Make tribalism your new activism.
Where do you create conversation? What’s your tribal outlet? And how are you called to serve? I want to hear your thoughts in the comments section below -- so let's start a conversation.
p.s. If you know other people longing for belonging and ripe for in-person interfacing, share this post with them. You never know what interesting threads it may open up between the two of you.
p.p.s. I talk about these topics and more in my forthcoming book, Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness. (Stay tuned for more updates on an interactive product launch that will accompany the book.) Preorder your copy of the book at your favorite book outlet today!