The ongoing lesson of Us and Them

Once upon a time, I went to volleyball camp.

This may come as a surprise, since most of you know me well enough to know that I am not athletic. That is true! And it was also true in the summer of 2000, when I was the one super weird kid at volleyball camp who had never actually played volleyball before.

A little backstory: I had finally convinced my Dad to let me go to public school. He had been homeschooling me since 5th grade, and before that, I went to a private Christian elementary school. Now that I was officially going to public school for high school, my mom had two conditions:

1. I had to sign up for a theater class (el oh el).
2. I had to play a sport.

In retrospect, these were incredibly thoughtful prerequisites. She wanted me to make friends, and knew the fastest way was through forced participation. Theater was an easy solve—I could take a class as an elective my first semester. The sport was a little more challenging.

My accessible fall sport options were: cross country (nope), soccer (my parents made me quit when I was eight because I was that bad), field hockey (running with a stick), and volleyball. I picked volleyball, and my parents were kind enough to send me to a week-long camp so I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself at tryouts.

At this point, my camp memories are mostly just blurred visions of people yelling GOT IT! But there was one lunch break I’ve never forgotten.

Two girls at volleyball camp were in my school district. They were both younger, heading into 8th grade while I was going into 9th, and they were determined to teach me everything I’d need to know to survive at Burnt Hills.

This knowledge base boiled down to a simple principle: Us and Them.

Us, they explained, was the group I wanted to be in. Us was the group they were in. Them was the group I did not want to be associated with, because it would lead to a lifetime of social despair.

“How do I tell who’s who?” I asked.

“You’ll know,” they said.

Seeing that I very much did not know, they tried to explain. If you were an Us, you probably played sports, had lots of friends, and went to parties. If you were a Them, you were the opposite.

I responded with a blank smile, made an excuse to leave, and went back to practice early. I might not have known much about the world—not who Mariah Carey was, not the basic principles of science—but I knew that sorting people into groups of who was acceptable and who was not was 100% crazy.

A few weeks later, I started public school. I made friends on both sides of the aisle. I quit volleyball (this was to everyone’s benefit). And I continued to roll my eyes at the absurdity of Us and Them.

We’re all rolling our eyes, right? Everyone who has experienced popularity culture (so, everyone) knows that this system exists, and that it’s absurd.

But what about other Us’s and Them’s?

This is where things get a little dicey.

As a teenager, I could instantly spot the pitfalls of a Popular Us and a Loser Them, but I continued to accept an Us and Them theology, where there was one extremely specific Us and a much broader Them.

Was that ok?

Unknowingly, I had also grown to accept an Us and Them worldview, with my American way of life at the center of a skewed solar system.

What about that?

Right now, two decades later, I’ve noticed that I’m participating in a new Us and Them. I’m part of the Us that is taking the pandemic seriously, fighting for equality and justice, and counting down the hours until Trump is out of office.

This side feels right to me to my core. However.

Whenever I’m sure that I’m right and someone else is wrong, it would stand to reason that I’m probably missing something. Because nothing is ever as simple as Us and Them.

So now, I’m asking a whole lot of questions.

  • Is an Us and Them system ever justified?
  • How do I remain in genuine, healthy relationships with people who have different convictions than I do?
  • Where, and how, does love come in—particularly when I feel strongly that someone’s beliefs are harmful, and they likely feel the same way about mine?
  • Why, in the Us and Them systems I can identify in my own life, do I usually end up in the Us category?
  • How has it been 20 years since I started high school?

As always, I’m not here to provide answers. My brain, and perhaps yours, feels like it’s spent the past few weeks doing donuts in an empty parking lot. But I do think asking questions is as good a starting place as any—even (and maybe especially) when the answers ebb and flow over the course of many years.

Maaaaaany years. Good grief. My AARP card should be arriving any day now.


Good Things

This episode of Sounds Good was timely and helpful: How to Combat Your Media Echo Chamber.

I love Ann Handley’s newsletter, and particularly loved her thoughts on what to do when our first drafts don’t look like the finished products we had in mind.

I don’t want to love the new Magnolia Table show on Discovery+, but I really, really do.

Robert (Bobby) Tonyan wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune, and it is beautiful.

100 Cookies was (and still is!) on sale for $10 on Amazon last week, so I broke my rule about not buying books on Amazon and purchased it. The world might be crumbling, but there will be baked goods.

In other food news: Samin Nosrat’s Butternut Squash and Green Curry soup has become a winter staple. It’s even better when served with focaccia.

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