[This is a guest post by frequent FG contributor who prefers to remain anonymous under the pseudonym The Mariner. We thank him for giving us permission to post this wonderful piece on community, identity, and the path of personal responsibility.]
In the early 1970s, I found myself living in a hippie commune in West Virginia with my 11-year-old son.
I knew before I embarked on this venture that I would not be working regularly and, therefore, would not be able to give my ex-wife child support for our two boys, so I decided to take one of them with me. My ex and I agreed that I should take the younger of the two because it would be easier for her to manage as a single mother with the older one — after all, he was 14 and could look after himself until she would get home from work.
One of the first things I told this younger son (let’s call him Chuck) was that I was not his mother, and that he would be expected to look after himself. In particular, this meant he would have to clean up any messes he made since he wouldn’t have his mom picking up after him. This worked well for a while. He ate with the rest of us, his clothes were washed along with everyone else’s on washday and, since there were other children at the commune, we all kept an eye on them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble and that their needs were met.
Then, one day, I saw him head for the kitchen sink to wash his plate after eating. A few minutes later, I also went to wash my plate and noticed that there was a dirty plate in the sink. Naturally, I washed that one, too, but didn’t say anything. Chuck had seen that plate, but only felt responsible for washing his own. I knew we were ready for lesson number two. The opportunity for it soon came up. Since Chuck was a few years older than the other children, he identified himself more with the adults than with the youngsters.
“I’m getting really big,” he said to me one day. “I’m almost grown up.”
“Being grown up is not a matter of size,” I replied. “Nor is it a matter of age,” though I was the oldest at the commune.
“Then, what makes you a grown-up?” he asked.
“A grown-up takes responsibility not only for himself but for the group. He takes responsibility not only for its safety and well-being but also for the smooth operation of all its functions and processes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for instance, when you come to the sink with your plate to wash it, and you find other dishes in the sink, you should wash all the dishes that are there unless you have a pressing task that must be seen to right away.”
“But, some people never wash their dishes,” Chuck argued.
“I think I would notice if that were true. Watch carefully and see whether this is really so. It’s possible that some of the adults are not really grown-ups, but do you always find other people’s dishes in the sink? If not, then someone is taking responsibility to see that the dishes do not pile up. If you want to be a grown-up, that’s the first step you must take,” I advised him. “We must all cooperate in keeping the community afloat, or we will all sink with it when it goes down.”
ONE FOR ALL, ALL FOR ONE
In so-called primitive societies, this is a well known fact of life. Among hunters and gatherers, nomadic herders, or agrarian societies, your survival depends on the well-being of your neighbor. The over-riding concern is the survival of the tribe. Conversely, the tribe ensures the survival of each individual member. A common punishment for those who were a threat to the survival of the tribe was banishment. In those days, this was literally a death sentence. No individual could survive alone for any length of time in the wilderness, Conan the Barbarian and other fictional characters notwithstanding. (Please note that Tarzan was adopted, raised and supported by a family of gorillas.)
In today’s complex, urban society, that truth sometimes gets lost. This is particularly so if you are a renter in one of those high-rise apartment buildings. Chances are you don’t even know the names of most of your neighbors, and you spend your days working at sites far distant from your home. Your family and circle of friends may also be located miles away. You may have a community, but its members are often far removed from each other geographically, and people frequently feel no sense of community with their neighbors.
BIKERS ON THE BLOCK
Lack of community. This is the reason why poor neighborhoods are so often run-down, trash-strewn and crime-ridden, not the poverty. Even in some communities such as these, a few public-spirited residents may form neighborhood improvement and neighborhood crime-watch committees to improve the general environment in which they live and raise their children. I knew a group of bikers who rode together and lived in a three-story brownstone in Spanish Harlem (used to be—and may still be—upper Manhattan below 115th Street). They wanted to live in Manhattan, but couldn’t afford the high rents in midtown and lower Manhattan.
First, one family moved in. Then, as neighbors moved away, they persuaded their friends to apply for the new vacancies. Soon, most of the tenants in the building were bikers. In a high crime area, someone had to keep an eye on the bikes, but bikers are particularly well suited to such an environment. Some worked in conventional jobs: construction, mechanical repair shops, machine shops, but many worked night jobs or jobs that were not limited to the 9 to 5 schedule: bartenders, bouncers, exotic dancers, event riggers and roustabouts in the music industry. So, at any time of the day or night, there were some who were awake and keeping an eye on the street.
These were not a war party. They included families with children. As a community, they took turns accompanying the kids to school, but their interest in setting up a safe environment for those kids went far beyond that. They cut out an area of two or three blocks in every direction as their “turf.” They “discouraged” drug-dealing and sexual activities in the schoolyard during the hours when the school was closed. In this regard, bikers are not so very different from civilians (conventional middle-class citizens). They may do drugs (as civilians may drink a Martini or two after work), but that doesn’t mean they necessarily allow their children to do the same.
They put a stop to petty crime. If you are trying to break into a car to steal the radio and suddenly find yourself surrounded by some angry-looking bikers, tattooed and scarred, wearing leathers and armed with chains, bats, knives and brass knuckles, there’s a good chance you may decide to go into some other line of work or work somewhere else. If they offer you the chance to leave unharmed, you may decide to leave behind your burglary tools and consider that you got off lightly. The word got out, and residents (other than the bikers) began to appreciate the new safety of the streets in the biker turf.
‘HONOR’ MEANS DOING THE RIGHT THING
Another community of men that attend to the common welfare is a combat team, a platoon. Each man knows (and has been trained to remember) that his life depends on the loyalty, competence and courage of the other members of his team. They fight not for flag or country or liberty but for the fellow grunt in the foxhole next to them.
In the short story by Tim O’Brian, “The Things They Carried” about his experiences with a combat team on patrol in Viet Nam, he describes “all the emotional baggage of men who might die.” He says, “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down….They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed and died, because they were embarrassed not to.”
Some call it honor. Honor means doing the right thing regardless of our personal feelings towards the person we are doing it for. He (or she) may not be your best friend or related to you by blood or marriage. You may even have an ongoing feud with the person or not particularly like him or her. But, if you feel an obligation toward that person as a member of your community and you regard yourself as an honorable man, you will perform your duty.
COMMUNITY DEFINES US
In the everyday world that most of us inhabit, the demands of loyalty are rarely as dramatic as those felt by members of a combat team or of a group of bikers in a high-crime neighborhood, but we are prepared to help a member of our community if it is in our power. We stand up for them if they are treated unfairly. We help them find jobs. We refer them to service providers we have found to be reliable, whether the provider is a surgeon or a plumber. When asked, we offer advice based on our similar experience. We mentor their children. Sometimes, when they are in dire straits, we put a roof over their heads and food in their mouths and comfort them in their grief or trouble. They are our family and friends, sometimes our neighbors and workmates, in closely-knit communities.
However, communities go far beyond that. They not only help to define who we are, but they also provide us with the medium through which we can communicate with others. Our appearance is familiar to them, our facial expressions, our moods, our typical reactions, our values and tastes and personalities are familiar to them. I had no idea what the value of this was until I tried to do without it.
In the early 1970s, I was teaching in a state college in New Jersey, and I was a member of a hippie community. For those of you who think being a hippie was all about getting high and having indiscriminate sex, I can only say that it was a much deeper (if somewhat idealistic and naive) lifestyle and system of values. It was a community. If a hippie was traveling far from home, he/she could seek out the neighborhoods where the hippies hung out and, just on the strength of his/her clothing, hair, beads and slang, find immediate acceptance.
Suffice to say that the previous summer many of my friends hitchhiked cross-country, making the pilgrimage to California where the hippie culture was well established. The Monterey Pop Festival, the Haight-Ashbury, Monday Night Class with Stephen Gaskin and the spiritual communes and gurus outside the city. These hippie pilgrims found love and enlightenment, or so it seemed.
I could not participate in this pilgrimage. I was married with two kids. The summer of Woodstock, I went camping with my family in Maine instead of going to the festival on Yasgur’s farm. But, during the ensuing year, my wife and I decided to separate. When summer arrived, I told my wife of my intent to hitchhike to California, gave her money, paid the bills for July and August, and made preparations for my trip.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
Maybe it was rampant arrogance that motivated me, but I decided to throw myself into the Void. In those days, having a beard and long hair, wearing earrings and beads, dressing in cast-off clothes and carrying a backpack immediately identified you as part of Woodstock Nation. Convinced as I was of my absolute cool (based on the view of me held by many of my students), I chose to divest myself of any advantage I might get by identifying as a hippie. Such identification may have gotten you angry looks from the straight people, but it was almost guaranteed to get you high in towns you were passing through as well as a roof over your head and food in one of the many crash-pads provided by other hippies.
On the other hand, I did not want to clean up my appearance and pass for a straight person. So, I shaved my face and head but left the earring in my ear. Some of my friends didn’t recognize me at first. They were only able to identify me after a while by my posture and my voice. My girlfriend expected to go with me and was hurt and disappointed when I told her I wasn’t planning to take her with me (what would have been the point of that if I was hoping to find true love—never mind that I already had it). If only I had taken her along, there would have been at least one person who knew me and could offer me an emotional safe harbor and a sense of myself. But no, I was determined to throw myself into the Void…and I succeeded.
HUBRIS LEADS TO DISASTER
For me, it was a personal disaster. It was this “adventure,” this “experiment” that taught me how much of my self-image was influenced and reflected back at me by my community. And, communication was impossible without it (at best, extremely difficult and uncertain). People often mistook my intent. I couldn’t guess what they saw when they looked at me. The person trying to communicate with me and I were left as two individuals looking at each other with puzzled looks on our faces.
In the past, when I spoke with my friends, family and associates, the communication included more than my spoken words. There was my body language, my intonation, my facial expressions. Was I joking, being sarcastic, verging on anger, speaking emphatically? Who was I? A college professor, an authority figure, a stoned hippie, a political activist, a rocker, a friend, a peer, a lover? Could I be trusted? My community knew me, my moods, my values, my outlook. They could evaluate what I said. They could interpret my words and intent, and they could respond appropriately. I could count on this.
Now, I was among strangers. I was a stranger even to myself. I could hardly recognize myself as I looked in the mirror. Who was I? What was my intent? Did the strangers understand me when I spoke? Often, they greeted my words with uncertainty and confused faces. I was a good 15 years older than most of the people hitchhiking on the roads at the time. What was I doing out here? How should they treat me? Was I a hobo? A cop? Some people would smile at me. I would look over my shoulder to see at whom they were smiling. One time, I found myself hitching just 5 miles from a state prison. I looked like a fugitive from prison or a lunatic asylum. It took me two full days to get a lift from that place. It seemed as though I had cut myself off from all humanity.
Eventually, I got to Oregon where a friend was living and attending Oregon State University. The alienation lifted a bit, but only a bit. I met two older hippies, one in Eugene, Oregon and the other in Oakland, California. They helped me come down from my freak-out. As the summer drew to a close, I hitchhiked back to New Jersey. I thought I would be welcomed back into the bosom of my community, but I was mistaken.
In the two months that I was gone, one of my roommates had taken up with my ex-girlfriend. The other one had been dealing drugs from the apartment. They all stayed in a bungalow colony in the mountains during the week and had neglected the apartment so that curtains lay on the floor where they had dropped, some things were broken, the entire place looked disorderly. Their plans to go back to the land were replaced with plans to open an organic restaurant. I was out of step in every way. I was still an outsider.
It took two years for me to recover from this disaster. My hair and beard grew back, I made new friends and moved on, but I will never forget the lesson I learned, nor will I ever be as arrogant as I was back then. I know now what my community means to me, and I strive to be of service to the individual members of that community as well as the community as a whole. Being of service to the community, recognizing my obligations to it contributed to my spiritual and emotional recovery. Acting responsibly and generously changes a man, makes him a better man than he was before. It contributes to his self-respect and raises his self-esteem. Yet, all service is not the same.
FAVORS vs. BEING OF SERVICE
Perhaps you have had a friend who helped you in some way but immediately followed the service with the phrase, “You owe me…big time!” That is not a favor. That is a business transaction…quid pro quo, this for that. Even the mafia recognizes that kind of service. There are others who do “good deeds” to enhance their social image or get ahead in their careers. “See what a good/honest/generous/loyal guy I am?” They try to take credit for doing the right thing when, in fact, they should do it out of simple decency. True service is selfless service.
What is “the right thing”? How can we recognize it? How can we choose when faced with alternative courses of action? Ask yourself, will this action make the world (or my community) a better place. Does it reflect consciousness and concern for the well-being of others? Is it honest, kind and compassionate? Does it require courage, loyalty or conscience? Do I feel it to be honorable? It is not so hard to choose when faced with these questions. We usually know what is the right thing to do; we don’t always have the strength and moral courage to do it.
When a man lies or acts selfishly, it is not only that he has betrayed the trust of his friends, family or companions, but it is the damage he has done to his inner self. The faithless action characterizes who he is. But, here is the good news: the more we persist in an honorable course of action, even though we may not pursue it perfectly, the easier it becomes. The noble action becomes ingrained in our personality. One day, faced with one of those decisions, we surprise ourselves by the spontaneity of our noble and selfless impulse. The individual honorable actions have transformed us into honorable men.
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Also published on Medium.