A beautiful meditation on our need for belonging and truth and on the perils and promises of post-tribal identity. Words by Peter Limberg and illustrations by Rebecca Fox.
You finally found the others. You were so sure of it. They believed what you believed, got outraged by what outraged you, and had the same aesthetic tastes as you, not to mention the same enemies. It felt nourishing, therapeutic, even tribal.
Memes — in the colloquial sense of the word — were being circulated within your tribe, liked and shared again and again, reaffirming your shared beliefs. These captioned images seemed cute and harmless enough, but another type of meme was being shared alongside them: “units of cultural transmission,” as Richard Dawkins phrased it.
Memes have the power to captivate an entire group of people. In the internet age, these groups are referred to as “memetic tribes,” and there are many of them. Some coexist peacefully, others not so much. These tribes have a meme complex, or memeplex, which can enthrall a group by offering its members what they most desire: a sense of belonging.
Who are these memetic tribes? Some are from the left or right of the political spectrum, others claim the center, or float up to the meta. The more vocal ones currently are issue based, focusing on gender, race, and other causes surrounding social justice. Some are not political at all, and are tribal around spiritual or religious lines, concerned with things like justifying God’s existence or attempting to undermine the justification of God’s existence.
All tribes speak to each other in a language of memes. From the safe distance of the internet, these shared languages provide a sense of connection and affirmation that makes us feel understood. And more importantly, they make us feel right.
But these emotions are fleeting. Boredom creeps in as belonging fades. Genuinely questioning the contours of your tribe’s meme space will get you in trouble. You will be labelled as foolish, a “concern troll,” or worse, a traitor. You soon learn there is no room for dissent, and you begin to intimately understand the boundaries of your tribe.
You find yourself pushed to the margins. From there you can see the edges of memetic foreign lands. Other exiles stand at those edges, questioning their tribes’ meme space. The content of their questions is quite different, but you sense the spirit of their questioning is the same.
You found your tribe because you were a seeker, because you cared about the truth, and for a while your truth-hunger was satiated. You felt like you had finally arrived. But now things are different.
You feel alienated. You realize there is no room for exploration within your tribe, and exploration is what you need; the cracks are showing, and you cannot ignore them any longer. Enough is enough. The mystery calls, and you begin to descend. You know there are others out there, you saw them at the edge, and heard the murmurs of their questioning, which seemed so similar to your own.
You’re on your own now. Tribeless, once again. The certainty you once had is now gone, along with the memes that helped you feel at home. Uncertainty is overcoming you. You judge yourself: you are too old for this shit. You should know who you are by now, you should know how to live your life by now. You’ve missed your chapel of knowingness, and you long for a map of reality, one that shows you the territory, once and for all.
If you asked a psychologist they’d tell you that you’re experiencing an “Intolerance of Uncertainty.” It’s only human, and the symptoms are all there: rumination, restlessness, anxiety, and of course, existential loneliness, the kind that has been following you around your whole life. There is no turning back now with all this unknowingness, that much you know. The way through is to keep going.
You see the darkness ahead.
Great doubt, great awakening. Little doubt, little awakening. No doubt, fast asleep.
You do not know what is true anymore, but this Zen maxim seems true enough. You have fully descended into a dark forest, surrounded by the unknown. A great doubt has seeped in, and questions start rushing in your mind at a maddening pace …
Will I always feel this lost?
Will I always feel this crazy?
Will I always feel this alone?
The last one stings the most. You are surprised by this. Maybe this is not about retiring past truths to simply replace them with new ones. Maybe this great doubt is not about finding the truth at all…
You realize you were sleepwalking through life before this, and more tragically, you were not really seeing people as the mystery that they are. You were filtering them through the lens of your retired truths.
In the thick of the unknown, you are afraid: afraid of who you were, and of who you may become, but with this fear there is a sense of aliveness. You hear something. It sounds familiar, and matches the murmurs you heard before in the distance.
Another approaches. The person you saw at the edge. You feel their fear. You also feel their sense of aliveness. Starting conversations with strangers in dark forests does not seem advisable, but maybe Timothy Leary was right when he advised the following …
Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…
Finding the others. Maybe this is what a great doubt was really for.
Your new friend is different in many ways. They tell you about the memetic tribe they were once memeing with. It is different from yours. You do not fully get it, and you are surprised by how cool you are with not getting it.
You notice that you do not have a sense of judgement towards them, like you would have had before. You notice that they are not judging you as well. Something else is similar: they are going through a great doubt too, experiencing the same confusion, fear, and aliveness that you are experiencing.
A purple light appears, and you see a neon sign flickering. The sign reads “Chapel Perilous,” and the purple light starts to reveal the contours of a structure, one that does not seem to belong to this time. It seems like it does not belong to time at all.
This chapel has an inviting quality, your new friend says they feel it as well. You both are compelled to go inside. You move towards it to get a closer look, and when you do, your sense of fear starts to dissipate. The confusion you felt is still here, but you no longer view it as a negative thing. A desire to celebrate the confusion starts to bubble up.
Others emerge from the dark forest; exiles from other memetic tribes, longing to find the others. You feel more you, in an embodied way. You do not have the desire to understand yourself in the way your memetic tribe understood you, and you already feel more understood by how this emerging embodied tribe does not understand you.
You stay with the paradox. You embrace the mystery. You enter the chapel.
Illustrations are by Rebecca Fox. Rebecca makes comics about philosophy and people. You can find her on Twitter here.