The Far Reaching Revelations in Sebastian Junger’s, “Tribe”

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Readers note: The following is a musing on Sebastian Junger’s, “Tribe.” I do not cite anything, as it all comes from the book which I invite all to read. I also make some other connections that I invite readers to explore and find out more about. MusingsofanExplorer is not a scientific journal, so I dont go to heavy on grammar and citing. The whole purpose is to make the reader think and let them come to their own conclusions.Nevertheless if you think something is in dire need of correcting, please contact me.

Sebastian Junger’s Tribe is a book that is full of startling revelations, facts and interesting interpretations that offers much to people who are concerned about the growing epidemic of PTSD and other ramifications of living in the modern western world. While the book primarily focuses on the possible reasons why combat veterans are coming home from war more estranged and psychologically damaged than ever, there are wider revelations that Junger touches on that offers clues as to why there is such a strong sense of dissolutionment, unfufillment and unexplained health issues in America and the wider western world. Not long into reading “Tribe,” one is exposed to some eyebrow raising statements; “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.”

It is hard for one not to find this reality extremely troubling, as those of us who grow up in the west, we seem to hold our standard of living and society in general, as the beaming light of the world. Certainly no one sees us as perfect and are happy with everything our governments do, but there is a reason why every celebrity who claimed they were going to move from the US if Trump got elected ended up getting cold feet. With our glowing pride in our advancements and knowledge made through western science, many cringe looking back at our tribal ancestors and those ‘unfortunate’ souls in third world countries in desperate need of ‘saving’ through the prescription of western science and democracy. The individualism, freedoms and opportunities that western democracies provide, certainly have many benefits but how then have we ended up with the worst mental (and in my opinion, spiritual) health epidemic in history? Yes people are living longer, and this is probably due to how shielded we are from the brunt of the physical dangers of the world, but is there that much more quality in those years? Junger acknowledges that it is hard to measure mental health of tribal societies in the past but we do have many reasons to believe it was much better in those societies by the plethora of written accounts (he goes into the reasons more specifically in the book).

The point is, the more one reads this book and ponders the startling, often obvious but even more often ignored revelations, it is hard to not to start to question that perhaps in exchange for comfort and security, we westerners have given up something that can not so easily be replaced. Junger consistently brings up studies that show surprisingly, that war and conflict seem to promote positive effects on mental health. And while he does not point to combat as the solution to our problems, he dissects that a solid sense of community and social connectedness may be missing from our world today that is causing massive inner turmoil among not just veterans but the average citizen as well.

Early on, Junger brings up that during Colonial times in North America, whites often fled their societies to live with the Indians and Indians never, left their tribes on their own accord to live in European societies. When colonial towns on the edge of the frontier were raided by Indians, many white captives were taken and adopted into Native tribes. They were treated as equals and were given the same roles according to the egalitarian society, despite their ethnic differences. When these ‘white Indians’ were liberated years down the road from when they were initially captured, they often did not want to return to white society and when they were forced to, they’d often escape and go back to their Indian families. There was obviously something quite appealing about living like “savages,” in which the reason might not turn out to be so obscure after all. This nostalgia that westerners possess for the tribal way of life, is not completely removed even from today’s popular culture. Consider the character, Nathan Algren in the movie, “The Last Samurai. Algren was a man that was known for his knowledge and respect for Indian tribes during the post civil war era in the United States. Consequently, he was recruited for this expertise to help modern Japan battle the tribal samurai who were resisting modernization. After being captured by Katsumoto and the samurai in battle, Algren was taken hostage and began living amongst these Japanese tribal people in a remote village in the mountains. He quickly fell in love with the ‘way of the samurai’ and in the end fought with them against the modern Imperial army of Japan. One of the most revealing scenes in the movie, was towards the end after Algren had returned to Tokyo following his captivity and Colonel Bagley, Algren’s despised superior in the US army, asks a conflicted Algren, “Just tell me one thing, what is it about your own people that you hate so much?”

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According to a theory called self-determination theory, 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. Junger says quite correctly, that these values are considered essential to human happiness and far outweigh extrinsic values such as beauty, money, and status. Today in our era, White men are more prone to suffering depression and anxiety than any other demographic in the world, despite being labeled as the most ‘privileged’ population. Interestingly, it is “only in Northern European society that children go through the well-known bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.” Adding to this, several studies conducted in the 1980’s revealed that only in Northern European societies, such as the United States (one can say what they wish about the diversity in America and what ever, The United States is rooted in Northern and Western Europe) do young infants spend such a large proportion amount of time sleeping alone. In traditional hunter-gatherer communities and third world countries today, babies are barely ever left alone, always sleep with their parents or older siblings and are consistently exposed to situations of a high level of stimulation, such as cultural musical performances that help integration into adulthood activities and the community. It seems to be well established by Psychologists, that a lack of connection at the earliest of ages can cause some problems to spring up later in life…

Do these realities tell us something about why there is such a high propensity of PTSD and other health conditions that on the surface seem so hard to treat? Even Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/M.E. is on the rise like we have never seen before, and the alternative medicine doctors who treat it, are starting to uniformly come out and say that it is a lifestyle disease and partly a product of living in our modern society that is so cut off from our evolutionary past. Junger continues to reveal startling studies, such as the fact that women in Nigeria are far less likely of developing mood disorders as women in the United States. Children and grandchildren of Immigrants from Mexico have a much higher rate of mental disorders than their cousins or forebears in Mexico.

Junger quotes a study from the journal of Affective Disorders that concluded in 2012, ” In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

Many of us were taught growing up that scientifically, more or less, humans need food, water, shelter and exercise to survive. But Junger suggests more over, we need social connection, purpose and belonging. There are certain neurological reward systems in the brain that evolved during our hunter-gatherer past that came from the bond that was shared with tribal brothers and sisters, the immediate strong purpose to survive in an often very dangerous world and every individual in the tribe was important to this survival. Junger writes, “Two of the behaviors that set early humans apart were the systematic sharing of food and altruisitc group defense. Other primates did very little of either but increasingly, hominids did, and those behaviors helped set them on an evolutionary path that produced the modern world.” We evolved with the reality of death and danger every waking day and in order to surive, humans banded together and developed behaviors that put the survival of the group ahead of their own personal survival and needs. Is it any wonder why Veterans come home from combat and after months, years of developing such a strong bond with their unit, they are unable to adjust in a society that doesn’t fill the void of deep connection, purpose and instead thrusts them into an environment in which they no longer feel necessary? Again I am reminded of a reference in popular culture, when Jeremy Renner’s Character in the movie, “The Hurt Locker,” comes home from his tour in the Middle East and the scene where he is walking around the grocery store with his family and it is obvious how deeply out of place he feels. A following scene where he his playing with his young boy and the viewer clearly gets an impression that he feels depressed and not fufilled with his life. The last scene of the movie, he returns to the Middle East with his unit and is seen confidently walking in his bomb suit, performing a job he knows he’s good at, knows that what he is deeply matters to his fellow soldiers and consequently, he is happy.

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Despite all that the reader learns in ‘Tribe,” it is fair to say that there is no easy answer to why PTSD is becoming so prevalent and why the West seems to have an immense mental health problem. It probably cannot be pinned down to one individual thing. Also it is not fair to paint old tribal, egalitarian societies with a completely sentimental tone as if living this way was a real life utopia. Life was harder, more dangerous (Just like War and combat) and punishment for certain crimes such as cowardice on the field of battle or stealing, was often met with the cruelest of retorts. Most of us are familiar with the horror of the catholic inquisition in Europe during the late Middle Ages but the ways in which Indigenous peoples treated their enemies, criminals and those who strayed from the code of conduct, was not any less barbaric and this is often an overlooked fact by those studying Indigenous peoples, Junger acknowledges this. So all in all, despite the abstractness and difficulty in pondering such a question, Junger does a great service by continuing to point out the issues that are uncomfortably relevant. We live in a world where we talk to people more often over technology rather than in person. A lot of people work a job that has no meaning for them personally, nevertheless we sit in a desk from 9-5, 40 hours a week plus, under junk lighting that messes with our circadian rhythms just so we can pay the bills and acquire all the material we desire and are told will makes up happy. We eat shit processed food that is far and away from nutrious and the type of food our ancestors ate and is no doubt a contributing factor to the epidemics of heart disease, alzeimers and autoimmune diseases that are becoming so rampant. Because we live in societies where the focus is much more on the individual, people are so often distanced from and do not care about issues so important to their communities. In the enormous cities and communities, you can be surrounded by people all day but not share any personal connection with any of them. Yes as we all are aware and ironic as it is, one can be extremely lonely in a city. In consequence, environmental issues and destructive farming practices go overlooked for so long and people dont care because it doesn’t effect them directly, or at least won’t for a very long time. You can see developing countries like those in Asia beginning to make the same mistakes as western nations in treating the environment with a who gives a fuck attitude. Recently in Thailand, the gorgeous landscapes and beaches are being trashed terribly as people there are going through the beginning stages of seduction through western amenities and technology that they are forgetting their connection to their land and community as a whole. Since there is such a strong focus on the individual in the modern world, the bigger picture is often forgotten. Junger writes, “This Fundamental lack of connectedness allows people to act in trivial but incredibly selfish ways. Rachel Yehuda pointed to littering as the perfect example of an everyday symbol of disunity in society. “It’s a horrible thing to see because it sort of encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared,” she told me. “It’s the embodiment of every man for himself…”

This was an enlightening read, I highly encourage those who are interested to get a copy of this book!

END OF MUSING

-Bryce

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