“The broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species”

I’m lucky to know smart people who can look beyond the surface. One of them commented on my peregrinations and the musings associated with them, and observed that I was pushing back against “the broken conformities of our so-called intelligent species.” This phrase has stayed with me for days.

“Broken conformities.” That phrase alone is so simple and profound. “What are working conformities?” I wondered. They must be the shared norms we evolved and developed as we banded together, cooperating to ensure the survival of our species in a harsh and indifferent world. Conformities of speech that led to grammar; conformities of killing that led to ritual and then perhaps religion; conformities of eating that led to manners; conformities of sex that led to marriage … and so many, many more.

Somewhere along the way, those conformities stopped working, and changed into broken ones, habits that we maintain simply for the sake of maintaining them, ideas we promulgate simply because they were passed down, behaviors we ape because a bigger monkey on a TV or movie or cell phone screen tells us that THIS is the banana we simply cannot live without. Unsurprisingly, conformities begin to break once you reach a certain critical mass of people. Organizational and anthropological studies have repeatedly confirmed that critical mass: 150.

Once your community, factory, village, military unit, bike club, heroin trafficking gang, WHATEVER, exceeds 150 people, things, in the words of Bill Gore, “Get clumsy.”

Hierarchies begin to take over rather than collaborative decision making. Freedom of action and speech gets curtailed. Cliques develop. People easily and quickly lose their commitment to a common goal. Conformities that once worked become broken. The so-called intelligent species has become that way, many scientists believe, as a result of “the varied demands of social interactions that have led to advanced intelligence.” But once those varied demands exceed the gross weight of interaction imposed by groups or organizations of more than 150 people, in the words of the great Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart.”

What’s funny is that none of this is either a mystery or a secret.

Who hasn’t belonged to a bike club that split up, or that wasn’t itself the result of some sort of internal faction after the club got “too big”? Last time I checked, there were so many versions of Christianity that you can’t keep track of them all.

People have a limited capacity to deal with other people in a meaningful, constructive way. And if the maximum size is 150 for a tribe or factory, it’s way smaller than that for genuine personal relationships. In common parlance, the number of “real friends” you can actually have is five. Not six. Not seven. And no, not the 5,000 “friends” a/k/a marketing network you can maximally accrue on Facebook. Five. Five real friends. That’s it.

Is it any wonder that the more tightly we bind ourselves to fake friend networks that we become more stressed, less happy, and fundamentally less adept at coping with the infinity of stresses that all these interactions bring with them?

This, then, is possibly the biggest and most broken conformity of all, the broken conformity of human community. What once was a small group that itself resolved into a tiny handful of confidantes has become a massive, commercialized, industrialized prostitution of our most naked and intimate selves: the self of our inner, private relationships and the experiences, conversations, and interactions that define them.

So yeah, I guess my friend nailed it–I am pushing back. As hard as I can.

I can actually pinpoint the date that the pushback began in earnest. It was August 19, 2019, the day I quit driving. Whatever you think about cars, there’s no denying that a car-less life in the South Bay of Los Angeles is not the norm. And if you have the kind of work that I had, which is lots of travel throughout Southern California, converting all of that into bicycle commutes was sort of Herculean.

But it worked, only not in the way that you might think.

In retrospect, it worked because it greatly accelerated a process that had preceded it, the process of greatly reducing the actual number of people with whom I interact. When you are commuting here and there seven hours a day, there’s simply not enough energy to devote to the hundreds of virtual and casual relationships that are the mainstay of pretty much everyone’s daily life.

In other words, when you are beat to shit and still have a bunch of emails to respond to, plus make dinner, do laundry, pay bills, etc. etc., one of the first victims is going to be the most extended fringes of your human network. Whether it’s Facebook or the group ride, something’s gotta give.

The down side to cleaving off those interactions is that you’re forced to focus more and more closely on the ones you retain. In my case, that led to more problems, not less … in the short term. Once you stop focusing on relationships that are too attenuated, and you begin attending to the handful close at hand, it’s possible that those relationships will not withstand the strain.

I used to call what happened to me a “failed marriage.” But a very smart friend took issue with that.

“There are no failed marriages,” she said. “And I know, because mine ended after many, many years. There are only marriages that serve their purpose, and those that have run their course. None of them are failures.”

Never one to do things by halves, it wasn’t long before I found my true social circle, by which I mean people with whom I regularly interact in person, reduced to one. From a few thousand to one. And you know what I found?

I found that people I have long admired and respected, people who I always considered good and smart and caring and thoughtful and compassionate people, well, they still were, and even in my most remote locations, we occasionally found time to exchange an email, a phone call, or a text. In some instances, our paths even crossed.

And the people who I disliked, or about whom I was ambivalent, or who I simply stayed “connected” with out of habit or social grouping? Well, they flat fucking went away. All of them. And with them went their ideas, their opinions, their problems, every iota of psychosocial stress that came from having to interact with people that, at your most fundamental level, you really don’t want to interact with.

Most interesting and maybe most gratifying of all was this twist: a handful of people about whom I’d been ambivalent at best showed me a side I’d never seen before, as if my catharsis had made me less of an asshole, more vulnerable, someone who they suddenly found they could actually relate to. In the process of discarding the fake, I’d converted a few relationships into something precious.

The numbers, however, haven’t changed: 150 and 5.

It’s unclear how long I can continue to live on my bike. From day to day I’m not even sure where I’m going to be. But the human mind was programmed to handle the triple stresses of food, shelter, and clothing on a daily basis and to thrive in that uncertainty. What it wasn’t meant to handle were the stresses of 5,000 fake friends and a dozen social networks.

So many broken conformities are being repaired, too many and in too great detail to describe in one post, but think about this: Food, sleep, shelter, sex, love, and yes, shitting, have all changed profoundly. If you think about how life-critical any of these things are, and how incredibly hard it is to have most, let alone all of them function as they were intended, you’ll understand the scope and the depth of the repair-in-progress.

Take a single rehab project, food. I no longer care how it tastes or how it is prepared. I care only that it nourishes. That’s it. If it’s cold mash that looks like dogshit, spooned out of a Ziploc, I care not a fuck if it’s going to nourish me for the day.

Labels, brands, “cuisine,” all of it has simply died with regard to food. Does it have the calories and nutrients I need? Then I eat it with relish and thankfully, because when you live on your bike and spend a lot of your time hungry, and all of your time needing crucial calories to get through the day, the stupid, broken conformities of flavoring, fancy preparation, blahblahblah, becomes as meaningless as that fake friend you have on the ‘Bag because you ride bikes, and he rides bikes so hey, why not click “accept”?

Rehabbing food in the context of a tiny social circle of one or two means that you have time to do other things, like sit by the river and watch the birds. It means that you can still enjoy tasty, flavored food when it’s available or served up, but you don’t need it to feel happy, full, socially acceptable, or most importantly, to feel “not poor.”

Rehabbing food in the context of living on your bike and moving from wild spot to wild spot means that you quit judging other people for their food choices, too. What other people eat really, really, really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the bagel has enough peanut butter smeared on it to curb the hunger.

Bring too many people into the mix, and the best conformity ever will break.

But whittle things down to the necessities and, to paraphrase the intro to the Six Million Dollar Man, we can rebuild them. We have the technology, we have the capability to remake our conformities.

Not as replicas of someone’s marketing fantasy, but as true images of who we, as human beings, really are.

END


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