Tribe and Belonging
Sebastian Junger’s concise and poignant book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, was especially resonant when I read it earlier this year. It delves into the role of community in a person’s mental health and well being, except that that description is so watered down and doesn’t do the book justice. Junger calls on the properties of ancient tribal social structures that, though seen as primitive by modern people, in fact supply a sense of home and belonging to their members commonly lacking in modern society.
In its introduction, he writes:
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… This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.
It begs the question, is there a group of people whose survival is so important to me that I would share my last food with?
How Money Pulls Us Apart
Wealth and affluence, I daresay the mark of modern society, come with many great blessings. With them, many basic human sufferings are avoided and we are enabled to enjoy and entertain ourselves with much delight. Vacation, eating out, hobbies, etc.
But there are shadows that lurk behind these blessings that may catch people unaware. The fact that our money can satisfy so much of our needs, bolstering our independence, by definition lessens our need of other people. We like this. We like to be able to move and do things on our own and not depend on someone else’s good graces.
Take exercise equipment. In my last apartment I lived in (and boy, what a great apartment it was), I used to walk to my local gym to work out. I saw other people exercising and running, which inspired you and boosted your own motivation. I interacted with the staff and also increased the chances of running into coworkers who lived in the area too.
When my husband and I decided to buy a treadmill instead of paying for gym membership, the convenience of running at home was great to have, but it came at the expense of the people exposure at a communal space. The only “interaction” I would have while running was maybe a podcast, the recorded voice of another human being.
Obviously, there are pros and cons of each option—I’m not saying one is absolutely better than the other. But it is a trade-off. The pros and cons differ.
Junger stretches this privatization of resources and links it further to mental health. Perhaps one of the big cons of independence and self-sufficiency is loneliness and depression.
First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. 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. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.
The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
Money doesn’t buy everything, obviously. Especially in an individualistic culture, the lack of people interaction can have a serious effect on someone’s mental health.
Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.
The Leveling Effect of Suffering
In contrast, one of the blessings of “financial dependence” is the community aspect of shared resources. Sure, it comes with many frustrations—you have to deal with other people—but loneliness is likely not part of it. Junger argues that often people cherish the memories of disasters, whether natural or manmade (war), because they seem to level and ennoble human nature. They bring the best in everyone, because each has a role to play in the survival of the community. Everyone feels needed and important.
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. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.
To belong to a tribe, a community with shared experiences, is to find a home. How do you find your tribe?
For more, read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. It goes deeper into the tribal psychology of war, PTSD, and what a society should do with regards to war veterans.
This article is Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.