I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and we who live in Milwaukee will have the distinct pleasure of being visited by 100,000 Harley riders this weekend. The Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company, founded in Milwaukee in 1903, has invited riders from all around the world to town to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the company’s founding. Countless activities, parades, and concerts will occur in multiple locations throughout this exciting holiday weekend in Milwaukee.
Two seemingly conflicting desires come together in this Harley celebration and they intrigue me. The image of a Harley rider, on one hand, is that of an outlaw, a loner, and a free and independent spirit. These riders are rugged individuals who march to their own drum. My father, a Harley rider throughout his life, until the age of 82 actually, fit the image of the independent Harley rider perfectly. He loved to put his leather coat and chaps on and hit the open road all by himself.
In contrast to the desire to be free and independent, there is another desire being expressed in the Harley reunion this weekend. For the 100,000 riders gathering in Milwaukee this weekend, there is also a strong desire for community. These free and independent spirits long to be connected with others just like them. For three days they will gather with people who ride bikes like theirs and who wear clothes like theirs. They will take great delight in making new friends and being a part of a community of other free spirits just like them.
In the end Harley riders are just like just like the rest of us. We all have a desire to be separate and unique, and we all have a desire to be connected and included. These two desires exist within us, throughout our entire lives. These two desires are perhaps most visible in adolescents, when we see teens dressing in a way that both separates them from their parents and bonds them with their peers. Today’s teens, just as we did when were their age, are all working hard to be different while at the same time all looking just alike.
When I work with people in spiritual direction or counseling, I find that they often express that they are struggling to balance the need to be both independent of others yet at the same time connected. Some report that they feel that they are maybe too independent , as they are lacking the connection they desire with friends, family, their faith community, and the wider community. Others report a high level of connectedness with friends, family, and community, but feel they are lacking in their individuality. When we find ourselves out of balance as far as these two desires are concerned, it is wise to tend to the less developed side of ourselves.
Great spiritual leaders are examples of how being unique and being part of a group can exist together. Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Mohammed, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa were some of the most unique individuals that ever lived. They stood out and are remembered for saying things and living in a way that was totally different from the dominant cultures in which they lived. At the same time, they were deeply connected to and were the leaders of communities. Both their independent thinking as well as their connection to others were essential parts of their identity.
In memory of my father, and in honor of the 100,000 Harley riders who will roar together through the streets of Milwaukee this weekend, I give thanks for the reminder to the rest of us to be a free and independent spirit, and to be connected to a strong community for support and fun. Apparently we are born to be wild and we are born to be connected!