I recently saw the musical Come From Away for the second time. It’s a musical about 9/11, when 38 planes were re-routed to a small town in Newfoundland, a town called Gander with a population of 9000 because US air space was closed.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, 7000 people showed up needing a place to sleep and needing food and phones, love and kindness, and more. And the people of Gander provided all of that and more. The musical is magnificent — funny, inspiring, staged beautifully, and with a great score drawing on some on the music of the area. A sub-theme is the idea of being an islander, and a Newfoundlander — which is about speaking with a particular accent and dressing a certain way, and eating certain peculiar foods. But it’s more than that, of course. And when 7000 strangers show up from all over the world, none of whom are islanders or Newfoundlanders, the people of Gander treated them like family.
Now I suppose there’s some romance in the re-telling. But when you read the stories of the real people who lived through it on either side of the experience, you don’t need to dress it up much. A bunch of people rose to the occasion and did what they knew was the right thing to do — they opened their hearts and their homes to strangers who were in distress for what turned out to be not just one day but many days. And they did it without expectation of return, without expectation of profit, without expectation of reward of any kind other than the knowledge that they were doing the right thing.
And it crossed my mind that this is the bright side, ironically, of tribalism. Ironically, because the people who landed unexpectedly in Gander were nothing like the people who already lived there and much of the humor and poignance of the musical exploits this difference.
The people who landed were very much “the other,” non-Newfoundlanders. The people who came to Gander were from “away” and hence the enigmatic title of the show. But because Gander was a community of people with a shared set of values and an ideal that they were a community, they were able to pull together and respond to a crisis with honor and greatness. It’s a triumph of the human spirit.
That triumph was a result of tribalism and not in spite of it. The people of Gander nurtured an ethos over time of resiliency, courage, pride. They live in a somewhat inhospitable place. Being from Gander means something to the people who live there. It isn’t just a place where people happen to live together. Living together means something beyond proximity. That shared identity was not irrelevant to how they responded to the call of a crisis. It informed how they responded to that call.
Being a community helped them respond effectively. Being a community let them work together in all kinds of ways to solve the myriad of problems they inevitably faced when 7000 hungry exhausted scared people showed up unexpectedly. But the specific community of Gander with all of what that meant to those who grew up and lived there, also put specific demands on them — that they would get it done, make it happen, overcome whatever challenges came up along the way. Being from Gander wasn’t just about being different from people from other places. It created an ethos for the people of who lived there of being resilient that served them well when they were confronted with 7000 unexpected guests.
Tribalism is part of who we are as human beings. It can be a horrible thing. But it can be a glorious thing. Read Tribe by Sebastian Junger and listen to my conversation with him on EconTalk:
What happened in Gander illustrates how tribalism can unleash something powerful that is for the good — an ability to rise to the occasion and pull together because of a shared identity and the expectations that went along with that identity.
The opening number of Come From Away is “Welcome to the Rock”:
Gander is a small town on an island in the North Atlantic, a rock, pretty far from everywhere. On 9/11, a small group of islanders, Newfoundlanders were confronted with a needy group of those who came from “away.” The people from Gander did themselves proud that week and showed what humanity is capable of. Their achievement was not unrelated to the power of home, identity, community, and tribe. It’s a good lesson to remember and it sure lifts the human heart to see it set to music.