I once held a friend’s hair back as she vomited at a sleepover. My friend, Laura, was not truly wanted at the party (and knew it) but the popular-girl hostess had been forced by her mother to invite her. The whole night had been awkward as Laura danced for the queen bee and her sidekick. While playing charades they made her be a toenail being clipped. Laura rolled with the punches and delivered a stellar performance that earned requests for more. Just as her status was elevated by comedic talent her stomach lurched and betrayed her. Her mom came to pick her up. Of course, once she left the party she became an easy target for ridicule again.
I would like to say I was noble and stuck up for her the rest of the night but I cannot. My own standing was wobbly. Much of the tween pecking order in my hometown was based on financial status. I had one foot on a banana peel in the high- end Pappagallo boutique and the other dodging the electronic door at Kmart. I begged my grandma for Calvin Klein jeans because my parents would not (could not?) buy them. I hid the fact that my dad lived in a trailer. I clung like Saran wrap to the slim margin of financial stability that kept me from being called a scrapper.
We all know about hierarchies. We are surrounded by them from birth. The schoolyard, our families, the office. Systems for finding our place. How do we rank in popularity? Financially? Intellectually? High school is an obvious example of a hierarchy. We are all put in the shape sorter, given a shake, and pop out dweebs, average joes, theater kids or homecoming queens. High school is often the last hermetically sealed hierarchy we experience. Beyond high school systems are too big to accurately calculate our position. Universities, national corporations, large cities and the internet, make us all little fish in a big pond.
Are Humans Territorial?
In the animal kingdom individuals define themselves in one of two ways: by rank within a group or by connection to a territory. Humans do the same thing, with hierarchy as the default setting. But what is a human territory? We obviously do not go around literally lifting our legs to mark our space. In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says that humans find their territory later in life after a stern education in the university of hard knocks. For some, finding their territory is life saving.
The characteristics of a human territory are:
- It provides sustenance. We only have to put in effort and love and it gives back to us in the form of well-being. Think of the high we feel after a run or an afternoon playing music.
- It can only be claimed alone. We can work with a partner but we only need ourselves to reap the sweet benefits of our territory. The benefits come from within.
- A territory does not give, it gives back. It is earned through work. Blood, sweat and tears go in and sustenance is returned ounce for ounce. Stevie Wonder’s territory is his piano. Muhammed Ali’s turf was the boxing ring.
An individual living territorially brings forth effort for its own sake, not for what it can do for the individual or how it can advance his standing.
A person who relies on the rank and file of a hierarchy looks upward for approval and pushes downward to maintain his position. It is difficult to be authentic if we are looking up and down to find sustenance, to value our work. The reward is not coming from within but from the outside.
A Test to See If You Are Living by Hierarchy or Territory
Steven Pressfield suggests asking ourselves, If I were feeling really anxious, what would I do? If our first move would be to jump on Facebook or text six friends to make sure they still love us, then we are living hierarchically and looking for approval. If we head to the gym, workout hard and speak to few people or no one then we know the exercise itself is what brings us back to our center.
The sleepover I endured so many years ago was a blend of hierarchical and territorial experimentation. The popular hostess reveled in exerting her power over my friend. Laura bowed to the pressure of the hierarchy when she agreed to do the toenail bit, but was in her territory when it came to performing comically. At the time, I had no idea what my territory was. I just knew being an outcast was difficult to stomach.
What do you do when your day is freaky? Where or what is your territory?
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