Warriors, Kindred Spirits, Swans:

A Love Letter to My Tribe

When I was 17 years old, I met my first true kindred spirit. He was a lonesome and wild soul ten years my senior, lean and wiry with a funny name, a man of the wilderness who was free and full of stories and songs. My summer outdoor adventure guide, the bond we shared was chaste but a deep friendship that transcended that of leader and pupil to become one of mutual teaching. He introduced me to Lao Tzu, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Chogyam Trungpa, and taught me how to navigate rivers, mountains, and deserts. He then walked with me through my own dark places as I later learned that he, in turn, had been processing his own grief.

His words are inscribed on my arm, in his handwriting, from a letter that he wrote to me at the end of that magical and transformative summer. I was, he told me,

“a warrior, a kindred spirit, a swan.”

A swan, he said, like the ugly duckling. I had always felt that I didn’t fit in. Too loud, too much, too opinionated; never that good at doing the “girl things” that I guess girls were supposed to do. I was friends with everyone, but I never knew where I fit. I thought I had to change myself to make myself fit somewhere.

Don’t change, he told me, and I believed him.

Because for the first time in my life, I had met someone else from my tribe. He saw my light – as I saw his – and he saw what I could bring to the world.

But I was young. Too young to understand. Eventually – tragically – I did change. I was naïve, and I thought that, to succeed, I had to give in to cultural imperatives. To sacrifice myself to the “empire of nothing,” as Jack Donovan puts it.

I was so profoundly wrong.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t stifle the voice. That driving search for meaning, the passion and spark that burns for a purpose. If you don’t find an outlet for it, it burns you alive from the inside.

And then, when I started to honor that voice again, pursuing a career in public service and using my voice as a tool instead of stifling it, a crazy thing happened.

I fell right in step with my tribe.

Just like that.

I didn’t know you were out there. It’s not a tribe that I could name offhand. Some of you, I found; some of you found me.

I didn’t know you were out there. It’s not a tribe that I could name offhand. Some of you, I found; some of you found me.

But I’m hoping that I can define you – us. I want you all to see each other, recognize that you have each other, and recognize that you are not walking this path alone. To me, you’ve been a blessed discovery like a spring of water in the desert. Disconnected beautiful threads I’m dying to weave together.

One dear friend, who I met (as I have met so many of you) through the falling dominoes of fate, recently counseled me through a rough time.

“I think that people like us always fight tough mental battles,” he told me.

“I think that people like us always fight tough mental battles,” he told me.

I meditated on his statement for days. He’s one of the most principled, sharp-minded thinkers I know. I look up to him. I was honored to be included under the umbrella of his “us.” But I couldn’t let go of the question: who are the “people like us?”

Out of nowhere, the answer hit me yesterday. I messaged him back.

“Remember when you said ‘people like us always fight tough mental battles’?” I wrote, “There it is. Right there. That’s the tribe. The deep thinking, passionate people who see missions to bless others while trying to improve and grow and conquer themselves…that is our tribe. That’s the ‘people like us.’ It is not an easy road, but I love knowing I don’t walk it alone.”

“100%” he shot back.

Deep thinking, passionate people who see missions to bless others while trying to improve and grow and conquer themselves. Are you with me? You are the remarkable people who have come flooding into my life since I committed to this path of service and personal growth.

Deep thinking, passionate people who see missions to bless others while trying to improve and grow and conquer themselves. Are you with me?

The connections I’ve made are remarkable, and nearly too many to count. Thought leaders, servicemembers, philanthropists, parents, missionaries, warriors, teachers, authors, adventurers, athletes, fighters, craftsmen and women, and even a combat helicopter pilot turned tap dancer.

People fighting immense personal battles, challenging themselves, setting lofty goals, succeeding, failing but trying again, pursuing passions, loving others relentlessly, believing in themselves, walking alone, making sacrifices, overcoming injury and infirmity, protecting the weak, fighting for causes, nurturing others, guiding their peers, shunning personal gain in pursuit of higher purpose – even when that higher purpose is just to make someone else smile.

“Warriors of the heart,” Steven Pressfield calls this tribe. An apt name, which he explains in ‘The Warrior Ethos’:

“Let us be, then, warriors of the heart, and enlist in our inner cause the virtues acquired through blood and sweat in the sphere of conflict – courage, patience, selflessness, loyalty, fidelity, self-command, respect for elders, love of our comrades (and of the enemy), perseverance, cheerfulness in adversity and a sense of humor, however terse or dark.” (90)

‘Warriors of the heart,’ Steven Pressfield calls this tribe.

The strongest common bond running throughout this remarkable community: virtues that grow through suffering and sacrifice, whether they are things we do not will or things we choose to take upon ourselves. But this tribe knows to seek these experiences because they are the only things that push us to growth. “Get outside your comfort zone,” my impactful wilderness guide used to tell me. He was the first to teach me that the real growth happens naturally when you force yourself beyond what you originally thought comfortable, safe, or even possible.

The strongest common bond running throughout this remarkable community: virtues that grow through suffering and sacrifice, whether they are things we do not will or things we choose to take upon ourselves.

Like the young mother I have met, heavily pregnant with twins while her husband serves overseas in a “tip of the spear” type of position, herself now thrust into a role requiring deep strength and courage. Like the fighters I train with who constantly work at the outer edge of their maximum skill and capacity, forcing themselves daily into the unknown broken space where courage is born and inner growth occurs. Like the young missionaries I know who are willing to sacrifice the last of their teenage years, isolated from social media and the rest of their generation, in their hopes of bringing the gospel to the lives of complete strangers. Like the warfighters I know who leave families behind or even forego the option of having families at all in order to make the sacrifices their careers in service of a higher purpose entail.

All warriors, fighting battles and overcoming odds in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Whether you choose situations where courage is required, or you have those situations thrust upon you, members of this tribe live on that edge. You inhabit the cusp between what we know is possible and what you hope to bring to fruition.

But there’s more: a critical distinction. While all of us inhabit a world that tells us to seek money and status, the truth of it all is that these are not sufficient motivators for this tribe. I have seen it consistently throughout the remarkable individuals I have met. Infinite individual capacity and potential, but drive that is only ignited through the principle of service.

There’s a connection, Pressfield writes:

“Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.” (41)

That’s it. That’s what I see in you all. It’s the selflessness which says, “I don’t matter enough to make my own gain the endpoint of my entire existence. What else can I do to leave the world better than it was when I found it?”

That’s what I see in you all. It’s the selflessness which says, “I don’t matter enough to make my own gain the endpoint of my entire existence. What else can I do to leave the world better than it was when I found it?”

As I recently told one new friend – former warfighter and now impassioned philanthropist Jimy Hatch – “authentic humility is rare and often born of strife. You have it.” He is someone who suffered a career ending injury on a mission under less than ideal circumstances, to save defector Bowe Bergdahl, because he “didn’t want [that kid’s] mom to see the YouTube video that Daniel Pearl’s mom had to see.” His mission now, running Spike’s K9 Fund, is still clearly and simply defined. ‘’Dogs saved me;’’ says Jimmy, ‘’My mission is to take care of them.” Infinite capacity for personal achievement, but sights squarely set on fulfilling a higher calling from someone who is clear on what he stands for.

Knowing first what you stand for, and then choosing to stand for it – once fundamental requirements of humanity, now choices which can be comfortably avoided. In ‘Tribe,’ Sebastian Junger writes that “the beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.” (59) He continues:

“What would you risk dying for – and for whom – is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.” (60)

I have been fortunate to have fallen into step with a community that knows their answer to this question. A tribe of individuals for whom there is some greater purpose on the horizon, grounded in the service of others over personal gain. Physical boundaries erased by virtual pathways, I see like-minded people banding together in pursuit of these greater goods.

“The forces of globalism may have destroyed connections to blood and soil,” considers Donovan, “but they offer an unprecedented opportunity for barbarians to connect with like-minded men and women all around the world. Men of vision can beacon to each other across the grassless desolation of the Empire and travel its vast networks to come together, tear apart the old world and become forces of creation.” (155)

Let this humble message of love be a small point of light to add to the beacon. Warriors of the heart, you do not walk your paths alone.

“What will our memorial look like?

I hope it isn’t for a war. I hope it is for a warrior.

I hope it isn’t only for loss. I hope it is for what you can find.

I hope it isn’t cold and lifeless. I hope it is real. I hope it is warm.

I hope it isn’t for lies. I hope the contents are our collective truths.

I hope it isn’t just another memorial. I hope it is an altar.

A living, changing, transformational altar…

All you beautiful people carrying our weight encircling the warrior,

Protecting the warrior, watching the warrior,

And praying for and with the warrior.”

-Jeremy Berggren, Iraq war veteran