The Lives of the Dead

Some of the most interesting people I meet are dead…

Archive for the category “group dynamics”

The Great Rift





I lived in a small village at the edge of a large salt lake. We did not have much that we didn’t make or grow ourselves, or trade for other goods. We had existed in this place, on this dry, inhospitable land for as far back as our collective memory and stories went. We followed a careful social order which kept everything and everyone stable and status quo. We each knew our duties and responsibilities — to our family, to our neighbors, to our small tribe. There was a strict hierarchy, and we all knew our place. The chief was at the top. His was only law we knew and the only law we needed.

One day, some wazungu arrived on a small bus driven by a man known by our chief.  The driver spoke our language and also that of the mazungu. Some of the men in our village had seen white faces before, in the city, but never had they come to us.

They were completely strange creatures to most of us women…not just their skin color, not even the texture of their hair or their impractical clothing… but the way the conducted themselves. There was no chief. The women laughed and talked among themselves, mostly ignoring the men, who never thought to scold or beat them.  What kind of women were these? Where were their children?  Did they have no important work to occupy them?  Why did they behave so freely, so foolishly,  as if they had no care in the world?  Were they not aware of all the misfortunes that might befall a woman if she let down her guard even for a moment?

We stared at them, and they stared at us. The driver told our chief to tell us to simply ignore them as they came from far away and wanted to watch us go about our lives in our usual way.  For this, the driver paid the chief a few shillings.  As he kept the entire amount for himself, he was quite happy with this arrangement.

After that, they came approximately once a moon, sometimes more, sometimes less.  This went on for many years.  Sometimes the driver gifted us all with a large bag of rice or beans, and then perhaps we might have a feast.

These wazungu were pleasant and friendly enough even though we could not communicate with them in words. Mostly, they wanted to watch us women doing our work…fetching water,  cleaning grain and pounding it into flour, weaving thatch, gathering wood and making a cooking fire, nursing our babies.  They liked to see inside our huts, where we slept. They seemed to particularly like watching the children, playing and climbing and running.

They pointed their small boxes at us but it was a long time until most of us understood what the purpose of that was.  None of us had ever seen a photograph of ourselves. I doubt I would even have been able to identify myself in a photograph. Some of the friendlier wazungu seemed to ask permission before pointing their camera box at us, but since we had no idea what they were doing, we just shrugged and smiled and let them do it.  We found it inexplicably strange.

We became accustomed to the visits. Some groups were nicer, more friendly,  more polite than others,  but mostly they were a waste of our time. Usually, we could truly ignore them as we went about our business but sometimes, they got in our way and made things more difficult. And for our compliance, we got nothing for ourselves.

We villagers knew better than to ask them for anything as compensation. That arrangement was strictly between our chief and the driver. The visitors also understood this and never offered us anything.

And then one day, the village was turned upside-down.

The wazungu came and their visit was going as they usually did.

There was a woman, in the village, of very low status. Her husband had left her and their infant son, and run off to the city, (so we were told.) She had been a bad wife (for why else would he have left her?)  and now she was a burden to the rest of us.

This woman, I shall call her K, was always far more fascinated by the wazungu than the rest of us. We used to tease her that one day she was going to hide on the bus and go away with them, but of course, it was a joke because where would she go?  What would she do?  She might have been low status in the village, but at least she was cared for.  Would any mzungu care for her out there?  She, as we, knew the answer.

Then, one afternoon, just before the guests climbed back into the bus, one of the mzungu women pulled the colorful scarf from her own head and gave it to K.

This small, soft, useless square of cloth nearly started a war.

After the bus left,   K tied the scarf around her head, the way the mzungu wore it,  and strutted around the village, acting better than the rest of us, behaving higher than her status.  She wore it like a crown and carried herself like a queen.

This immediately caused anger, resentment,  and jealousy among the village women.  The girl had done nothing to deserve any such honor, and in fact, she’d only received this gift because she’d lingered too long around the bus people, and let them hold her child,  when she should have been working.  It seemed doubly unfair that she was rewarded for her bad behavior.

We grumbled and gossiped, but she pretended not to care. This went on for several days, until one afternoon the chief’s first wife walked across the village,  her eyes burning with anger and purpose.  She walked into K’s small hut , pulled her outside, struck her knocking her to the ground, pulled her hair, grabbed the scarf off her head, and triumphantly tied it around her own.  K lay crying and moaning in the dust.

Violence among women was unheard of in our tribe, and this was shocking. None of us had liked K’s attitude but we were appalled at the behavior of the chief’s wife.

The women were immediately divided in opinion. Some believed the chief’s wife did the right thing, that it was the only choice.  Some believed that as badly as K had behaved, nothing justified violence. And along this line, we fell into two camps.

The rift threatened to tear us all apart. Finally, the chief himself,  who tried as much as possible to remove himself from the petty problems of women, stepped in to settle things.

It was a delicate matter since his wife held high status, and it would be a humiliation for her to beaten publicly. This would only cause further problems.  He had the right to beat K, if only for her inappropriate behavior in the days prior. But he could not beat one without beating the other, and fortunately for all of us,  he was not the kind of man who enjoyed giving beatings.

He consulted with each woman alone, and heard some other opinions (whether he wanted to hear them or not.)  In the end, it was arranged thusly:  His wife returned the scarf to K, and in turn K made a show of giving the scarf to the chief to use as the village flag.

The wazungu never returned.

Throughout the rest of my life and even now, my mind returned to those few days.  I recognized how close we came to being destroyed by divisiveness and unrest and lack of forgiveness; how easily the fabric of our society might have become completely unraveled despite the fact that we depended upon each other for survival.

We were fortunate to have a wise leader who resolved the problem in way that satisfied everyone, and allowed us each to learn some important lessons.   The wrong decision might have destroyed us.



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Also,  I have started a discussion group on Facebook,  for conversations about any of the concepts/issues in the posts.  Honestly, these are things in here which I don’t fully understand myself.  I would love  get your thoughts on this…even if you think this is all a bunch of hooey!

A Leader for His Time




I was a leader of my people for many, many years.  I was chosen because I was wise and good, and I had learned to lead from the leader who went before me. I was fair in my judgment, even-handed in my decisions.  I understood that if my people were to live in peace, everyone must believe their needs are being met.  For some to prosper while others suffered,  for some to win at the expense of others,  caused resentment, and this caused problems. No one went without, regardless of how little they were able to contribute. These were our values and we understood that they kept us whole.

But there came a time when I was old, when the bravery and boldness of youth was more important than the wisdom and steady guidance of age. And so I relinquished my power to a warrior chief.  I did not agree with all he did,  but once I ceded my position, I did not question his authority. He was the leader who was necessary for the times.

One must never hold too tightly to what must be let go in order to achieve  the greatest good for the greatest number. This is not a sacrifice.  It is the minimum requirement necessary in order to consider oneself a member of the human race.


If you are enjoying this blog,  please click the link above to subscribe and receive posts via email (new posts every three days).  When you think of others who might enjoy it too,  it’s easy enough to help spread the word! Post your favorite stories to social media.   Email a particularly apt link to a friend.   Even better,  talk about the concepts with others (whether you agree or disagree. )
Also,  I have started a discussion group on Facebook,  for conversations about any of the concepts/issues in the posts.  Honestly, these are things in here which I don’t fully understand myself.  I would love  get your thoughts on this…even if you think this is all a bunch of hooey!

A Gentle, Invisible Force





I first met her on my first day of school and she was there when I died, but I barely knew her.  Our lives crisscrossed each other like strands of DNA.  Though we rarely interacted in any deeply personal way,  we applied a kind of subtle gravitation force upon each other.

In school, she was the pretty one.  The smart one.  The one who never let her emotions get the better of her, even when, as puberty hit,  the rest of us were turning into mad witches.  She remained always cool and aloof.   Although popular with a select crowd, she was never mean or condescending to others.  She was naturally intimidating but she was never unkind.

I, for one, did not think of her as an individual.  To me, she was an icon.  The epitome of all I wanted to be, and which I knew I would never become.  I tried to emulate her style, her grace,  but she always did it better, easier.

When we were about nine, I developed a very secret crush on a boy in our class and carried a torch for him all through school.  I dared not share my feelings with anyone lest they laugh at me.  It was obvious he would never feel the same about me.  He barely noticed me.  I was beneath him in every way.

When we were 12,  they discovered each other and became inseparable.  I wasn’t jealous.  It made sense that the perfect girl would end up with the perfect boy.  Rather than envy, I felt curiosity.  What would it be like to be that confident?  To be the kind of woman who could attract a fine man?

After graduation,  we all went our separate ways and I didn’t think about her much, except still, perhaps as a standard by which to judge myself.

Many years later, coincidentally, our children went to school together.  We would nod a polite hello to each other, or perhaps converse casually about upcoming events. I hated to admit it to myself, but I was still intimidated by her.   I always felt bad about myself when I saw her.  She reminded me, through no fault of her own, that I was “less than.”  Still, I felt no animosity for her.  It wasn’t her  fault that I felt as I did.  She wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was just living her life, being perfect.

Her house was nicer than ours.  Her children, better behaved.  Her husband, more successful.   But she never noticed the envy of others.   She did not act superior.  She simply was,  by any measure I could think of,  superior

I never sought her friendship nor she, mine.

Eventually, our children moved to different schools and once again, she was out of my life.  Another decade passed,  and then we met again,  this time working for an organization.  She had all the right social connections and so rose quickly to the top.  I remained firmly in the middle.  We ran into each other from time to time, and as always,  chatted politely though never vapidly.  Short, intelligent conversations about current events or organizational issues.  I felt flattered that she took me as her equal.

After a few years,  I moved on from that organization, while she remained and rose higher still.  Meanwhile, I occupied myself with other things.

Many years later,  we met again at the home of some old school friends.  Her position in the organization had been terminated. Her husband had left her for a younger woman.  She was forced to sell her beautiful home.  She revealed these turns of event matter-of-factly,  still hiding behind her impenetrable facade, emotionally aloof as always.

That night,  when I went home,  I looked at my life and I felt grateful.   I was happy and I was loved, and those were the most important things.  Why should I be jealous of her when I had everything I needed right here?

After that,  I removed her from her high pedestal and placed her on a lower shelf.  I no longer compared myself to her version of perfection.  I realized I was perfect in my own way, and I was OK with that.   We are all good at something.  I didn’t have to be good at her  thing. I only had to be the best I could be at my own.  This was the beginning of my self-acceptance.

In and out,  again and again, over the years,  we would encounter each other in casual ways.  Never friends but eventually friendly enough by virtue of our long history, to catch up on the essentials of our lives –  for example, the deaths of our parents, the births of our grandchildren,  her eventual happy remarriage.

I came to know her better, although never well. I began to understand that the woman I thought she was had existed only in my imagination.  She wasn’t aloof.  She was painfully shy.  She cultivated her friends carefully and so didn’t have many.  She curated her facade meticulously but she was far more fragile than she ever appeared.  With these realizations,  I stopped judging my perceived faults and the perceived faults of others, by a false standard of perfection.   I began to notice what was right about people instead of what was wrong with them.  These lessons informed my life and my relationships.

Many years passed without us crossing paths.  I hadn’t given her more than a fleeting thought in years.  But then, in our old age, we found ourselves in the same home for the aged, both widowed, both great-grandmothers.  Only we, of all those others in that place, shared a history that went back to childhood.  Only we, remembered all those places and people, long gone. And what we didn’t remember, the other often filled in.   And so we talked.  And talked.  And talked.  The separation that had always been between us fell away.  We were too old to care about hiding our feelings, protecting our faces to each other.

One day, I told her how I’d envious I’d been of her in school, and for many years after; how I’d judged myself against her, and finally, eventually,  I felt myself perfectly equal.  Better in some ways, worse in others.

And what she confessed to me made me rethink my entire life.

She told me she’d always been envious of me!  (Even in my dotage, I was shocked!)  She was envious that I did not live in fear of the judgment of others.  Even as children, she admired my ability to make friends easily.   She felt compelled to always behave in a certain way – quiet, dignified.  She admired my willingness to make a joke at my own expense. She felt constrained by having to pay attention to detail.  She admired my ability to roll with the waves, make the best of whatever came along.  She was painfully shy. She recognized that many took this for aloofness, but still, she could never overcome it.   She admired my ability to easily engage others in conversation.  She rarely felt as if people saw her as she was.  She did not feel known.  She wished she could be casual and easy with people, let down her guard, and not be afraid to let them see her.  She thought I was brave, not caring about perfection.

Oh, the irony of that!

She sat at my bedside the day I died.  I’d been unconscious for nearly a week, and she sat with me every afternoon for a few hours after lunch, in silence, just thinking about all the things that had happened to both of us over the years; how our lives had been so different yet here we were at the end,  in the same place, in the same situation.

I understand now that there are people who remain on the periphery of our lives, but who nevertheless affect us deeply, and who we affect in return, often unawares.  They may meet us upon our journey as merely a pebble in the shoe or a jug of water when we are thirsty.  They might be the shade of the trees overhead, which we barely consider until we walk must through a desert with the sun beating down upon our head.  They may be a vulture in that desert. They may be an oasis.  Or they may be the shepherd dog who nudges us back onto the path. They may be the fruit of wisdom, which we come upon at the moment of peak ripeness.


If you are enjoying this blog,  please click the link above to subscribe and receive posts via email (new posts every three days).  When you think of others who might enjoy it too,  it’s easy enough to help spread the word! Post your favorite stories to social media.   Email a particularly apt link to a friend.   Even better,  talk about the concepts with others (whether you agree or disagree. )
Also,  I have just started a discussion group on Facebook,  for conversations about any of the concepts/issues in the posts.  Honestly, these are things in here which I don’t fully understand myself.  I would love  get your thoughts on this…even if you think this is all a bunch of hooey!


New Post!




When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was not well-versed in the social graces and did not get much respect from others. I felt odd and apart from others.

In my twenties, I volunteered to do some work for an organization. They were happy to have another body and brain to help the cause.   We were all working towards the same goal, and there was a real sense of community.   For the first time, I felt I belonged and was a part of something.   It pleased me and so I devoted more time.

I quickly and mostly unconsciously assessed the group dynamic, even the more subtle, low-level hierarchy. The closer I moved to those in power, the more I emulated them. The more like them I became, the more respect and higher status I attained within the group.

I devoted myself to making myself as helpful as I could be to those at the top.   I made sure they knew they could trust me and count on me, which they increasingly did. I was always there, ready to do what needed to be done, all in order to make myself indispensable.

Over time, I became a part of the larger inner circle. … not the core group, but close enough so those below me on the ladder thought I was more important than I actually was.

This group came to define me. They were my family, my support team, the only ones who accepted me fully, even though none of us ever really shared our personal feelings with the others.

And then, after a many years, the momentum of the group shifted. They wanted to do things which I did not condone, acts which would cause material and/or psychic harm to others.

I was in a quandary.

If I contradicted their mission, if I protested, if I suggested that as a group we reconsider our actions, I would have been ostracized. I couldn’t bear to go back to the days of having no status, no friends, no acceptance.

I felt it was wrong to follow them, but I was too much of a coward to say no.

Initially, I regretted the harm I did to others but I soon convinced myself that our actions were just. In any case, I did not bear this guilt alone. The ones above me, certainly, but also the ones below. Their belief and compliance allowed those at the top to achieve their goals. It was easy to deny my own complicity when I felt myself to be a cog in a machine that was moving forward with or without me.

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