Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

By Sebastien Junger


A common refrain is that life has never been better. People are living longer, more comfortable lives than at any point in human history. So why are people still depressed? Why haven’t suicide rates dropped to zero? Why is PTSD among veterans at an all-time high?

Why do I feel unfulfilled?

Drawing from his experience as an embedded war reporter–with deep research into the tribal living of our past–Sebastien Junger presents a thought-provoking look at how modern society alienates us, and how a lack of belonging might be the root cause of our modern ills.

Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with.

Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers.

As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down.

A wealthy person who has never had to rely on help and resources from his community is leading a privileged life that falls way outside more than a million years of human experience.

Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.

Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.

As modern society reduced the role of community, it simultaneously elevated the role of authority.

When a person does something for another person—a prosocial act, as it’s called—they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones.

Subsistence-level hunters aren’t necessarily more moral than other people; they just can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in small groups where almost everything is open to scrutiny.

Dishonest bankers and welfare or insurance cheats are the modern equivalent of tribe members who quietly steal more than their fair share of meat or other resources. That is very different from alpha males who bully others and openly steal resources.

Democratic revolutions are just a formalized version of the sort of group action that coalitions of senior males have used throughout the ages to confront greed and abuse.

Whether… civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested. -Thomas Paine

Modern society obviously doesn’t conduct initiations on its young men, but many boys still do their best to demonstrate their readiness for manhood in all kinds of clumsy and dangerous ways. They drive too fast, get into fights, haze each other, play sports, join fraternities, drink too much, and gamble with their lives in a million idiotic ways.

Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals. (Despite erroneous news reports, New Orleans experienced a drop in crime rates after Hurricane Katrina, and much of the “looting” turned out to be people looking for food.)

The positive effects of war on mental health were first noticed by the great sociologist Emile Durkheim, who found that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped.

Charles Fritz’s theory was that modern society has gravely disrupted the social bonds that have always characterized the human experience, and that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating.

Humans are so strongly wired to help one another—and enjoy such enormous social benefits from doing so—that people regularly risk their lives for complete strangers.

Given the disproportionately high value of female reproduction to any society, risking male lives to save female lives makes enormous evolutionary sense. According to a study based on a century of records at the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, male bystanders performed more than 90 percent of spontaneous rescues of strangers, and around one in five were killed in the attempt. (“Hero” is generally defined as risking your life to save non-kin from mortal danger. The resulting mortality rate is higher than for most US combat units.) Researchers theorize that greater upper-body strength and a predominantly male personality trait known as “impulsive sensation seeking” lead men to overwhelmingly dominate this form of extreme caretaking.

Women tend to act heroically within their own moral universe, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it—donating more kidneys to nonrelatives than men do, for example. Men, on the other hand, are far more likely to risk their lives at a moment’s notice, and that reaction is particularly strong when others are watching, or when they are part of a group.

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.

What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.

To some degree the sexes are interchangeable—meaning they can easily be substituted for one another—but gender roles aren’t. Both are necessary for the healthy functioning of society, and those roles will always be filled regardless of whether both sexes are available to do it.

What catastrophes seem to do—sometimes in the span of a few minutes—is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.

If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does.

Given the profound alienation of modern society, when combat vets say that they miss the war, they might be having an entirely healthy response to life back home.

Almost everyone exposed to trauma reacts by having some sort of short-term reaction to it—acute PTSD.

Statistically, the 20 percent of people who fail to overcome trauma tend to be those who are already burdened by psychological issues, either because they inherited them or because they suffered abuse as children.

Horrific experiences are unfortunately a human universal, but long-term impairment from them is not, and despite billions of dollars spent on treatment, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.

As with welfare and other so-called “entitlement” programs, a less rigorous definition of need—though well-intentioned—may have produced a system that is vulnerable to error or fraud.

Studies from around the world show that recovery from war—from any trauma—is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy. Modern society does not seem to be one of them.

What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender.

Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.

In humans, lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself.

Shared public meaning gives soldiers a context for their losses and their sacrifice that is acknowledged by most of the society.

Because modern society has almost completely eliminated trauma and violence from everyday life, anyone who does suffer those things is deemed to be extraordinarily unfortunate.

In the United States we valorize our vets with words and posters and signs, but we don’t give them what’s really important to Americans, what really sets you apart as someone who is valuable to society—we don’t give them jobs.

Cohesive and egalitarian tribal societies do a very good job at mitigating the effects of trauma, but by their very nature, many modern societies are exactly the opposite: hierarchical and alienating.

Lifelong disability payments for a disorder like PTSD, which is both treatable and usually not chronic, risks turning veterans into a victim class that is entirely dependent on the government for their livelihood. The United States is a wealthy country that may be able to afford this, but in human terms, the veterans can’t.

Iroquois warriors who dominated just about every tribe within 500 miles of their home territory would return to a community that still needed them to hunt and fish and participate in the fabric of everyday life.

A society that doesn’t distinguish between degrees of trauma can’t expect its warriors to, either.

There seemed to be a great human potential out there, organized around the idea of belonging, and the trick was to convince people that their interests had more in common than they had in conflict.

The poorest people in modern society enjoy a level of physical comfort that was unimaginable a thousand years ago, and the wealthiest people literally live the way gods were imagined to have. And yet.

The earliest and most basic definition of community—of tribe—would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend. A society that doesn’t offer its members the chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; it’s just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on its own.

Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit.

The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything.

Construction workers are more important to everyday life than stockbrokers and yet are far lower down the social and financial ladder.

You can defend against external enemies but still remain vulnerable to one lone madman in your midst.

Almost by definition, rampage killers are deeply disturbed sociopaths, but that just begs the question why sociopaths in high-crime urban neighborhoods don’t turn their guns on other people the way they do in more affluent communities.

One way to determine what is missing in day-to-day American life may be to examine what behaviors spontaneously arise when that life is disrupted.

It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary.

Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker.

The perennial conservative concern about high taxes supporting a nonworking “underclass” has entirely legitimate roots in our evolutionary past and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

But by the same token, one of the hallmarks of early human society was the emergence of a culture of compassion that cared for the ill, the elderly, the wounded, and the unlucky.

The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs—and, more broadly, over liberal and conservative thought—will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.

The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively—that should be encouraged—but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group.

Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country. Obviously, you don’t need to be a Navy SEAL in order to do that.


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