Be Tribal, Be Dazzling

Our morning ritual includes four people, two big and two little, around the dining room table in our Chinese kitchen. There is coffee for the big people and granola and juice for the littles and a morning playlist repeating in the background. This is a time of give and take and (interrupted) conversation. On this particular morning, my husband, who believes that he is my normalizing influence, who in fact has fallen into “compatible weirdness” with me, read to me an article from an oft-visited online periodical. I am not a vegan (yet), but I am drawn to books like this and can admit to regularly practicing ten of the 17 weirdest things vegans do.

And then we read through some of the many comments to this article. And it struck me. The comment section of myriads of posts and articles is the modern-day ground for tribal warfare. Yes, yes, yes! from those of mutual weirdness. No, and you are the reason the world is the mess that it is! from those of other tribes.

Tribe used to be a concrete word that labeled people in geographic proximity to one another, which shared language, physical features, and deep cultural identities. Today this idea has developed into something much more fluid and copious. Seth Godin writes in Tribes that the Internet eliminates geography. All a group needs to be a tribe is a shared awareness and a way to network. That means there are more tribes than ever before and they are based not on normal things that form first impressions like ethnicity and accent, but on shared ideas.

A tribe is more than mutual enthusiasm for particular hobbies and habits. Membership of a tribe gets at identity formation, as it always has. Off the top of my head I’ve encountered tribes of: gardeners, animal-lovers, musicians, runners, environmentalists, city dwellers, Dr. Pepper drinkers, bloggers, Lego constructors, debt eliminators, attachment parents, social entrepreneurs, techies, and Trekkies… Tribes at their best are growing into movements grappling with the ethics raised by their shared passions and potential contributions to the way others live.

If you are here there is a good chance that you belong to a tribe of third-culture people. We are those who have spent a significant amount of time living in cultures that are not our own and are being so shaped by both home and host cultures that we don’t fully belong to either. Belonging to both and neither, we belong to one another.

We of the third-culture tribe are masters of reusing giftwrap, gift bags, even greeting card envelopes that were once addressed to others. Am I right? My oldest son just passed his fifth birthday. Another third-culture friend gave him a gift of two new (English!) books in a little purple bag with the words, “Buy sterling silver to dazzle the silver tribe,” in sparkling script. The instruction here is twisted – purchase your way into a group you perceive to be inaccessible – but if we untwist the message, there is a nugget of truth in here. Godin writes, “Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people.”

We don’t win by having no strong ties, in fact, that would be to deny our humanness. We win by practicing what Richard Mouw calls convicted civility. Citing Martin Marty, he writes in his book Uncommon Decency, “one of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.” What if we could balance kindness and gentleness with obligation to truth? What if the civility we do extend was not a hypocritical mask but a genuine inner concern for the larger society? What if we didn’t weary of the pursuit of peace because we were constantly being renewed? What if we could nurture others because we resolve to mature in both conviction and civility? Now that would be dazzling.

You are not alone. And good things happen when people converse. We are elevated both by identifying with our own tribes and by engaging civilly with those of other tribes. For some this is an encouragement, for others an exhortation. For all of us, it is truth.

What tribe(s) do you belong to?


  1. Amy Young December 10, 2013

    Kim, I just have a sec and will come back and comment more later tonight … but this:

    Richard Mouw calls convicted civility. Citing Martin Marty, he writes in his book Uncommon Decency, “one of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.”

    I love your call to have both. The challenge for all of us will also be then to accept one another as we might disagree. (I”m thinking of something with one of my sisters here). I think we have worked hard for many years as a family to have different convictions on a certain issue, but to be civil about it and LOVING to one another. But it can be exhausting :). I can see why people might tire of it 🙂 More later. Thanks for helping us sparkle!

    1. Kimberly Todd December 11, 2013

      It can be exhausting! When my ugly spills, I know I’m not there yet. And really, I don’t want it to be just about holding in my ugly. Like you, I want to LOVE, and that’s something that takes time and transformation. What grace that there is both.

      1. Amy Young December 11, 2013

        Yes, yes, yes! This is it exactly … I think God has so much more for us than just “holding in the ugly” (sounds a lot like sin management). Thankfully, as you said, he’s willing to walk the long, slow, meandering walk with us.

  2. Danielle Wheeler December 10, 2013

    What I love about our Velvet Ashes tribe is that we are bonded by not just one segment of ourselves (a love for Dr. Pepper or a hobby we have). Third-culture living encompasses both our core identity and our daily to-do’s. We have so many layers in which we relate, thus making our ability to nurture and encourage one another truly powerful. I love being a tribe with you ladies!

    1. Kimberly Todd December 11, 2013

      Well said. And though all of our layers may not match (perhaps causing us to examine our own convictions and employ grace even within our tribe), you’re right, we have a bond that is really rich.

  3. Anna Scianna December 10, 2013

    Tribes, like many things, have the potential for good or evil. Working in publishing, I quickly saw how different tribes within the larger tribe of believers could display such vitriol and lack of civility to one another that it was embarrassing to belong to them. So the question is, how in our quest for belonging do we not just identify by ourselves by the things that make us different from other tribes (us v. them), or by the ways that we can make a difference in the lives of those around us?

    One of the beautiful things about the “third-culture tribe” is that we are often put in community with others who become our tribe that might not be the same people who were in our tribe at home. We must continually balance our conviction to the truth with civility–and humility. We have to see how we can work together to make a difference–rather than simply focusing on the things that make us different from each other.

    1. Kimberly Todd December 11, 2013

      Spot on, Anna. The third-culture tribe is deep and wide. And the quest isn’t ultimately about our own well-being but the spread of shalom. You thrive, I thrive. Humility required.

  4. Michelle December 11, 2013

    Being back in the States for six months, I have seen just how much I have become of the third culture tribe. I am thrilled to be here, loving my family time yet I feel the pull to be back in China. I am not yet ready to be back (we leave in less than two months) but the yearning is there. I am getting a better sense of how my kids must feel. My oldest daughter spent 8 months in the US, then two years in Malaysia, six years in the US, now 5 years in China. She has always just been drawn to other kids like her. It is an amazing thing to watch her when we are just out and about. Now, my husband and I are the same. While here, we want to spend time with others like us, who have spent significant time overseas. It is definitely the strongest tribe in our lives at the moment.

    1. Kimberly Todd December 12, 2013

      Yes, Michelle. Your experience is normal for third-culture people. Naming it and owning it and normalizing it can be really powerful not only for us as adults, but especially for our children. May you and yours savor the last of your precious time in the US and relish your return.

  5. L'Tonya December 12, 2013

    Well said! The idea of tribe, a sense of belonging to a group of people with common, language, group, or custom! I spent costless moments of my childhood and young adult life wondering what TRIBE I was supposed belong to! Growing up in a blended family–which side of the family was really mine! In high school–was a smart kid or black or could I be both. As a college student- was I dorm dwelling nerd or party-goer! All the time… wrestling with my identity! When I think of belonging to a tribe, I was really just trying to answer the question, “where does my soul (identity) belong?” Today, I am certain of where my soul belongs, I am certain that I share that in common with all of you!

    The gift of a tribe, for me meant finding my true identity– an identity that was lavishly given to me! Often, I don’t ponder what it means to be apart of such a tribe. A group of people around the globe with shared convictions and love and same hope. All of this is a gift! No matter where I find myself, I always meet someone who resonates with my Inner Person. Whether in Kentucky or China, I have a people who I can call home! I am thankful today to be apart of this tribe, a place where my “soul” truly finds peace in knowing you!

    Yours in Humble Surrender,
    PS. Thanks Kim for the post! It’s Dazzling me today!

  6. Kimberly Todd December 13, 2013

    Thank you, L’Tonya. It sounds like your past experiences have prepared you to be here now, adapting well and thriving as you do, and we are richer for having you among us.

  7. Mikkin Helvig December 13, 2013

    On a lighter note…Kim, what are your favorite vegan blogs for recipes? We’ve been working in that direction…and have recently felt the need to go closer to vegan.

    P.s. love the deeper sides of your post too! 🙂

    1. Kimberly Todd December 13, 2013

      Hi, Mikkin! You’re probably further down the road than we are, but I’ve recently discovered Kimberly Snyder:
      You have to subscribe to see some stuff which annoys me (I also belong to an empty inbox tribe =), but I’ve gotten some good recipes/information/inspiration from her.

  8. Laura December 14, 2013

    I too, for years did not seem to understand which tribe I belong to. I feel like I’ve gone in and out of different tribes at different times being adaptable to whatever setting I seem to be in. Growing up in a very small close-knit Christian community/family and leaving at the age of 19 for overseas work and turning back only to visit mom and dad, my heart has been forever tugged overseas. Now at 35 my family finally understands that God has called me to be part of their tribe, yes, but has also called me to be part of a wider tribe, one that involves hearts and souls of people overseas. And even as I got married and had my two kids we also started our own tribe- in the way that we do things, say things, see life, understand one another and interact with those around us.
    This tribe idea is wonderful I’m just trying to sort it all out. Can I truly be a part of three tribes or am I ultimately part of one? Love it, lots to think about!

    1. Kimberly Todd December 16, 2013

      Laura, I love how you applied this to family, the unique awareness that you cultivate and share. Michelle had a helpful idea above that we can move in and out of the strength of our tribes’ influences with changes in stages and environments. Anna brought in the idea of sub-tribes above and that expands this idea. Absolutely, we can belong to multiple tribes. Thanks for engaging here. Happy sorting! =)

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