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Changing Tribes

Motivational speakers, psychologists, politicians, and poets speak of our ‘paradigm,’ the inherited mass of strictures, and assignments, and directions, and assumptions that craft the blueprint of our lives. This paradigm determines who we are, how we think, how we make decisions, and what comfort level we settle into. It’s our subconscious guiding all we say, think, and do.

Imagine Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet living in a trailer home next to the B&N tracks. Impossible. Picture that raggedy fellow in the busy intersection, with his cardboard sign begging for scraps living in a suite at the Waldorf. Equally impossible.

But imagining these scenarios is what Americans delight in doing. The rags to riches tale is endemic. Dreamers and schemers that we are, we’re told from the time we’re in grade school that working hard, and striving for a better, higher station is our birthright, indeed our obligation. But rising above our station, ‘grabbing the brass ring’ as they say, means changing tribes.

Very few of us fulfill the American aspiration to rise above our peers. For the most part, we get comfy with our assigned paradigm, settle in, and resist moving either direction, up or down.

It’s downright terrifying for, let’s say, middle-class Americans to imagine moving downward, losing income, cars, the Netflix account, the Sam’s club card, and end up living under a bridge, even if it’s a very nice bridge. That terror is what keeps us running on our particular treadmill.

But it seems to be equally frightening to move up. Imagine yourself living in a suite at the Waldorf, mixing with poo-bahs, knowing what a fish fork is for, carefully raising a pinkie finger while sipping tea. Heck, I don’t have the dinner outfit, or the manners, or the argyle socks to pull it off! If I’d meet Warren Buffet in the hallway on his way to the annual Berkshire-Hathaway gathering, I wouldn’t know how to act. That’s my paradigm at work. That’s my tribe whispering (or shouting) ‘you don’t belong here, pal, back to your condo-complex! And what’s with the socks?’ Changing tribes means moving beyond our paradigm, and that’s one of the more difficult transitions we can make, in either direction.

When my wife and I chose to leave the U.S. as ex-pats five years ago, we felt pressured by our tribe to stay put, to abandon our plan, and to be content with what we had. The pressure was very subtle, but it was there. It came from family, friends, and associates. It was a message of confusion, dismay, even open disapproval at times. “You’re going where?” “Why would you do that?” “Is it safe?” In all the responses we received, not once did we hear outright or enthusiastic support, even though our reasons were legitimate, and the plan was well considered.

It took time to sort out the mixed messages, and the ambivalence broadcast our way, but we learned a few things from it: One, is that those messages came from a place of love and concern for us; that peoples’ ambivalence reflected their own yearning to do the same thing we were doing, coupled with their fear of doing it; and that we were abandoning them, and how could we! We were changing tribes.

Socrates allegedly said an unexamined life is not worth living. Only in looking at our aspirations, hopes, dreams, and paradigms can we ever know who we are.

Having returned to the U.S., my wife and I realized that five years ago we really did leave our tribe. Now that we’re back we no longer fit into the narrow slot we’d been assigned. We also realized that leaving our assigned slot to move abroad automatically raised our comfort level, perhaps not to Warren Buffet in the Waldorf hallway altitude, but much higher than it once was. And the tribe? Their welcome back was as mixed and ambivalent as ever. I’m still not crazy about argyle socks, but the tea is pretty good.

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Byron Edgington
Byron Edgingtonhttps://www.byronedgington.com/
Byron Edgington was a commercial & military helicopter pilot for 50 years. An award-winning writer, he is the author of several books including The Sky Behind Me: a Memoir of Flying and Life, A Vietnam Anthem: What the War Gave Me, Waiting for Willie Pete, a Novel of Vietnam, PostFlight: An Old Pilot’s Logbook, and recently released Journey Well, You Are More Than Enough. Edgington served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot, including a yearlong tour in Vietnam. As a commercial pilot, he flew all over the world, including 20 years of air medical flying in Iowa, news & traffic in several U.S. cities, a stint as a corporate pilot, and three years flying tours on the island of Kauai. After retiring from aviation in 2005, he returned to college and received his Bachelor's Degree in English and creative writing from The Ohio State University at age 63. In 2012 Edgington won the prestigious Bailey Prize in non-fiction from the Swedenborg Foundation Press for his essay titled ‘Lift Off.’ Byron Edgington is married to his best friend, Mariah. He has three daughters, and six grandchildren. Recently returned to the U.S. after living in Medellin Colombia, he now lives and writes in Iowa City Iowa.

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5 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Thank you, Byron, for sharing this incredible article. Every word resonated so strongly, perhaps because I can relate to how “Art” might feel about the “fish fork” and raising that little “pinky finger” while sipping tea. I’m fortunate, however, because at least I realize that each of us does, indeed, have a set point, much like a thermostat. Some might call it a psychological homeostasis. Our paradigms keep us in our supposed “comfort zones,” while our inner spirit is crying to be let free to explore.
    Powerful words. I’ll be looking forward to your next article…and the next after that.

  2. Byron,
    Thank you Thank you Thank you… fo sharing this profound insight! My husband and I just relocated to Cascais Portugal from the US and have been experiencing every aspect of your story. I have not been able to put it in words… but you have. We have only been here 5 months and right now, can’t imagine moving back. #lovemytribe

  3. Charlotte: Where did you go? And for how long? I hope your expat experience was as fulfilling as ours was. We made wonderful Colombiano friends that we’ll go back and forth with forever, and a few fellow expats like that as well. We also came away from it understanding just how crucial it is to learn the local language. It’s impossible to separate language from culture, so to really know and understand people, we must become familiar with their language, expressions, adages, even the way they curse!

    It was a marvelous time. I’ll always miss Colombia.

    Thanks for writing

    BE

  4. We must have had a telepathic connection, Byron, it was only last Sunday that I convinced next generation that they should watch Trading Spaces.

    As for the very idea that one might move to another country: I would have thought that was in the DNA of most Americans whose ancestors made the journey. But apparently not.
    In my family we are in no way odd for going abroad (although some would have preferred we had just stayed for five years like you): https://usdkexpats.org/20140709-where-does-it-come

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