Saturday, 21 October 2017

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger Review

Is Western civilization the pinnacle of human achievement? In Tribe, Sebastian Junger questions this notion by looking at, among other examples, why colonial Americans left behind the burgeoning settlements to live with the tribal Indians; why, as technological advances have sped up over time (and accelerate still faster today), we are all “connected” and yet more and more of us feel isolated, depressed and unsatisfied with life in the Information Age; and why comfort is killing us and, rather than avoiding it, hardship and intense trauma like war can be the greatest and most cherished experiences life can offer.

Loved it. Sebastian Junger’s done it again (check out his last book, War, for an equally remarkable and powerful read)! Tribe is a fantastic book that’s very relevant to our time, containing a lot of useful insights on our turbulent era.

Junger manages to tackle the enormously complex and deeply important issue of societal disconnection, and break it down clearly, accessibly and compellingly. His thesis is that humans need three main things to be happy: struggle, community and purpose, and that the lack of these things in the West is why so many people today feel unfulfilled and directionless.

And it’s a convincing argument, backed up with several fascinating examples. Junger covered the Bosnian war back in the ‘90s and went back to Sarajevo to interview the survivors who said that was the happiest time of their lives! Everyone was forced to live together, pool their resources so they could all survive, and all other worries were pushed aside as peripheral. And this is a sentiment echoed from survivors of the Blitz in WW2 to soldiers from the most recent Gulf war. There are also studies showing depression and suicide decrease in the wake of tragedies like 9/11 or devastating natural disasters.

And it’s because you’re suddenly and viscerally reminded how small and trivial everyday bullshit is when you’re surrounded by death, deprivation and suffering and you realise what’s important is your common humanity with others around you. Junger talks about the military’s “brotherhood of pain” where soldiers are united by their circumstances which goes back to the plains Indians with their clearly defined roles and how there is a base need for this kind of close unity with others and a shared purpose in all humans. This need is ignored by most people in the West today to our psychological, emotional and physical detriment. In the words of anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz, today “we are an antihuman society”.

The most striking observation Junger makes is how Western society needs to more fully recognise the military as part of the everyday rather than single it out as separate and other. He mentions how in other cultures, like in Israel where military service is mandatory, there’s far less post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because that aspect of their society is a big part of ordinary life. Whereas in America soldiers are very clearly singled out, for better or worse, and that this distinction can be harmful when it comes to reintegrating back into civilian life.

Because life is too comfortable now and most people don’t suffer violence or trauma (at least not on the same level as soldiers), we highlight those who do and view them as unfortunate victims, making them feel alienated from the rest of us. Obviously there are legitimate cases of PTSD among veterans but if the idea that all veterans are assumed to be victims with PTSD, it almost forces them into the role of victims in order to claim disability (disability claims have gone up inordinately for vets while casualties have gone down). This renders them useless going forward because they won’t be able to have jobs and disconnects them further from society and the country they fought for. Junger poetically notes that while these people were willing to die for their country, they don’t know how to live for it.

Even if you don’t agree with Junger’s conclusions, which I absolutely do - and it’s hard not to, particularly with the recent case of the Las Vegas shootings; who else but someone so profoundly disconnected from his fellow man could do something so unthinkably brutal? And that’s just the latest atrocity - mass shootings have been an American fixture for decades now! - it’s worth taking to heart the egalitarian message. To make your community better for everyone by caring beyond our immediate family and close circle of friends, to stop focusing on our differences and look to our similarities, and realize that we could learn from less “civilized” societies, that the West haven’t gotten everything right.

Technological change is great but it’s a mixed blessing; in many ways it’s made our lives better and, in some, worse. And as technology continues to rapidly change, year after year, it’s worth remembering that human nature doesn’t change as fast and that we shouldn’t ignore our basic nature and needs. Struggle and recognise it - you’re alive, this is temporary, so live while you have the chance. Help others because it’s right or for no other reason than to make yourself feel better. And in those actions, you’ll find purpose and satisfaction.

I could go on a lot more but I’ll stop here and encourage you to read it for yourself, that is if any of this struck a chord. I found Tribe to be a fascinating, brilliant book full of thoughtful new ideas (to me at least) and rewarding and enlightening information with an inspiring message at its core.

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