We all just want to belong
Many of modern society’s ills are due to the loss of tribal sentiments lying deep in our evolutionary past.
WHAT caused American settlers to run away to join Native American tribes, and what does that have to do with recent US combat veterans returning home to find themselves missing life in the war zone?
Bestselling author Sebastian Junger explores the human need for the kind of strong, intimate bonds that can be found in tribal societies in his book Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging (Twelve, 2016).
What led you to write about this topic?
I started thinking about these issues 30 years ago while growing up in a great American suburb. We didn’t know our neighbours very well and didn’t care much about them. Everyone I knew lived that way, and everyone I knew wasn’t happy about it.
How did you first start thinking about the intrinsic value and attraction of tribal life?
My adopted Uncle Ellis (a close family friend) used to tell me how white people were constantly running across the frontier to join Indian tribes and taking up with them. And then the light bulb finally went off when I kept encountering veterans who’d say they missed the war and wished they could go back. And that, to me, was exactly what my uncle was talking about except in a modern context.
With the United States as polarised as it is, do you see it as one tribe or many different tribes?
When we live in a nation, by definition it’s one huge national tribe. But when one candidate or leader creates factions in the United States by saying there are enemies of the state within our borders, they’re actually acting un-tribal.
If we don’t want to live as a nation, that’s fine. We should just divide up. But as long as we’re living red and blue under one tent, we have to act that way.
The factionalism of the recent (presidential) election, it was just getting going when I started to write Tribe. And I was so revolted by it, mostly because it seems antithetical to any kind of national unity, which we all depend on socially, economically, militarily, and psychologically.
In you point out that major crises, such as the relentless bombing of London during World War II by the Nazis, have the opposite of the intended effect to shatter a country’s morale. Why is that?
If you believe in evolution, we’re obviously descendants of our successful ancestors. As fang-less, claw-less apes that can’t run very well, we depended on tight solidarity within the group. We are the descendants of ancestors that did that very well.
If hardship, adversity and danger triggered antisocial behaviour, we wouldn’t be here today. Another way to say that is we’re the descendants of those that acted in prosocial ways because that’s how our survival could be ensured.
How do you see examples of that playing out in modern life?
You don’t have to go to such extremes as war. Anytime there’s a blizzard, and you see a 10-year-old helping to shovel out a neighbour’s driveway, that’s prosocial behaviour. It could be extremely mundane – helping an old person across the street is prosocial behaviour.
In a larger context, there’s some sense that a community has to take care of its own, and I owe something to that effort.
How do you see that happening in modern society?
Modern society has so completely eliminated hardship and danger in everyday life that the individual is almost never called upon to step up. If there’s a crisis, like a hurricane or a blizzard, there is enormous
amount of prosocial behavior on display and those hard times are actually looked back on with an enormous amount of nostalgia and fondness.
You’ve spent a lot of time around soldiers. How does military life resemble the values of tribal life?
The vast majority of soldiers never see combat. They’re in support units. But just the close nature of that work plays to all our evolutionary adaptations as a species, so it feels incredibly good.
You saw this firsthand as a war correspondent?
In the city of Sarajevo (during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s), there was an extreme sense of community. It was a civilian community besieged by a modern army and I really missed that when I left Sarajevo. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but Sarajevo.
In your book, you’re critical of the way post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is viewed as a chronic condition with war veterans. Why do you see that as a problem?
PTSD is an incredibly common thing. If you have a car accident or if you’re assaulted on the street. You don’t have to be a soldier. Trauma is a part of life and virtually everyone will get PTSD at some point in their life as a healthy adaptation to trauma.
What’s not healthy is long-term, going on decades and decades. That’s where the disorder comes in, in that diagnosis.
As a species we wouldn’t have survived if a significant percentage of traumatised people remain non-functioning for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t make any evolutionary sense.
One of the problems with the VA (US Department of Veterans Affairs) now is that because PTSD is considered a lifelong problem, the VA is incentivising people to see themselves as broken because they will get a lifelong disability check. In this weird way, veterans are incentivised to not get healthy.
You want to make the person functional and useful as fast as possible. But when you actually warehouse them in a disability designation and give them just enough money to live on, it’s not a healthy thing. It doesn’t return them to functionality, and functionality is mental health. – The Dallas Morning News/Tribune News Service
In his time as a war correspondent, Junger has seen how communities – ‘tribes’ – pull together when severely stressed. — TIM HETHERINGTON/sebastianjunger.com