I am new to rowing, and have spent months feeling like an awkward bird learning to take off and fly. Watching crews on a river, imagining The Boys on the Boat, it looks so fluid, even graceful (unlike my festival of knees and elbows). Last week, when a coach at the gym announced we would do a “Progressive Row” for 15 minutes, increasing in power every minute, I did not know where to begin; not knowing what it feels like to row with power, I couldn’t trust myself to experience progress. Uncertain, I checked the screens of the rowers beside me, and although my screen recorded more power (#winning), the truth remained that I had no idea how to pace myself, what to expect, or what to aim for. So I asked. My coach gently (and awkwardly) suggested I pay attention to my own body instead of screens, to notice when my effort was effective and how much it took to exhaust me. Who knew?
Many of us suffer from a similar inability to pace ourselves in the public sphere and around our own kitchen tables. What are we allowed to care about, to be bothered by, to strive for, or to challenge? Dialogue across lines of difference rarely feels comfortable, and our instincts fail us in the moments we now frequently encounter. If a person makes a comment demonizing or defending all ___________ (choose your own adventure: men, Muslims, private school kids, women, people of color, rich people, the foreign born, home school kids, Jews, white people, teenagers, Christians, impoverished people), do you counter their assertion? If a person says they are pro-life or pro-choice, do you ask them to clarify what policies they advocate and why? If a person subtly roots a political stance in their faith tradition do you ask them to guide you through their exegesis? If a person utters hate speech, or refutes hate speech, in your hearing, how do you respond?
Like a flailing new rower, we don’t trust ourselves in such conversations, but instead try to mimic those around us, and in the process, lose our voices. When we look to others to pace us, we abdicate responsibility for our own lives. We work to hit targets—and strive to adhere to cultural norms—set by others.
Adjusting habits to match the pace of others reduces your ability to check yourself (before you wreck yourself). I am currently raising a few teenagers, and they provide a perfect case study: In real time, I watch them decide if they will live by a code established by their peers or orient their choices around their own set of principles—even if it is confusing and messy. Teenagers are famous for this abdication, allegedly jumping off bridges because their friends think it’s a great idea. In them, we see this lack of discernment as a passing deficit, and shake our heads, knowing they will grow out of it.
Do we, though? Many of us have never learned what it means to move at our own pace. Rather than choosing to live in a way that aligns our actions with our beliefs, we often live in a way that is intentionally less (or more) than our peers. Image-driven apps like Instagram and Snapchat spur us to have enough parenting wins to stay with the pack, or to seem as apolitical as our church, or to have as many friends as the rest of our insta-worlds. The damage comparison does to the soul is well documented. Our efforts to impress, to keep up with a pace set by others, to demonstrate our relevance-but-not-outrage, consumes us. It is a never-ending, potentially all-consuming beast that devours our ability to reflect on how to live our own aligned lives. We seem unable to articulate and pursue priorities consistent with our understanding of our place in God’s economy. When we are unwilling to disregard the power of cultural norms if those norms are not healthy, we are stripped of joy and community.
Unsure of how to live well with others, we look around, instead making sure to fit well with our chosen “people.” Choosing comfort, we pick environments where we don’t stand out, or where we share similar fears, hopes and frustrations, assuring us we are on track. We participate in what sociologists call “hivemind” bias, meaning our understandings of identity, beliefs and positions are reached through our loyalty to the group to which we belong. We see ourselves primarily as part of a specific community, and speak not with individual discernment, but as people supporting “our people.” Furthermore, many of us find our people through homophily, a process that leads us to gravitate toward those with whom we share a clear commonality—often related to race, gender, ethnicity or faith. Homophily leads us to huddle in groups of similarity, ignoring any differences and reinforcing perceptions of unanimity by adhering to the thoughts and positions of the group.
Cultural (or group) norms have a way of quietly replacing our own sense of values. Norms are rarely intentionally established; rather, they develop over time, gaining strength as the instincts and habits of a few people grow and spread, eventually establishing dominance as unwritten rules of society. Blindly adhering to such norms helps increase the power of those who resonate with that culture, while simultaneously marginalizing those whose instincts do not adhere to those cultural norms. You are either loyal to the hive, and therefore relevant and desirable, or you are isolated and without power. No wonder we struggle to speak up.
For the next few weeks I plan to explore the ways in which we perform our loyalty to our hive, even if it requires us to betray our own values. We find ourselves in a country in which hate speech is ubiquitous, unchecked, and increasingly linked to violence, where our sense of our hive, our “us,” is so strong that any outsider is an enemy, a threat, or invisible, and where norms require us to cheer on anyone who blames the other side, and crucify anyone who asks us to think about the impact and import of our own words. Who is your hive? Has loyalty to your people replaced your own sense of discernment? Do you know what it feels like to pace yourself, or do you look around, frantically trying to figure out how to be a person sharing space in America?