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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Author: Sebastian Junger
Rating: 10/10
Last Read: June 2016
Recommended Reading? Yes!

Quick Summary: Our societal "advances" have been robbing us of the needs we have as social human animals, and this manifests many ways in our society today.  We all miss being part of a tribe.

Related Books: On Killing, Sapiens

Key Takeaways

That nagging feeling inside of you, saying that you feel lonely even surrounded by people constantly? That's a real feeling - a product of the systems we have created and surround ourselves with.

Real human connection flourishes when there is a dependency and shared experience.

The modern world is a psychically dangerous place for us.

My Highlights

I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage? --Loc 43

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. --Loc 72

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. --Loc 221

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. --Loc 245

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 --Loc 247

self-determination theory, which holds that 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. --Loc 252

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. --Loc 255

“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment… that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders 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.” --Loc 261

Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. --Loc 274
In 2007, anthropologist Christopher Boehm published an analysis of 154 foraging societies that were deemed to be representative of our ancestral past, and one of their most common traits was the absence of major wealth disparities between individuals. Another was the absence of arbitrary authority. “Social life is politically egalitarian in that there is always a low tolerance by a group’s mature males for one of their number dominating, bossing, or denigrating the others,” Boehm observed. --Loc 286

Modern society, on the other hand, is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. What tribal people would consider a profound betrayal of the group, modern society simply dismisses as fraud. --Loc 308

Fraud in the insurance industry is calculated to be $100 billion to $300 billion a year, a cost that gets passed directly to consumers in the form of higher premiums. All told, combined public- and private-sector fraud costs every household in the United States probably around $5,000 a year—or roughly the equivalent of working four months at a minimum-wage job. --Loc 314
The FBI reports that since the economic recession of 2008, securities and commodities fraud in the United States has gone up by more than 50 percent. In the decade prior, almost 90 percent of corporate fraud cases—insider trading, kickbacks and bribes, false accounting—implicated the company’s chief executive officer and/or chief financial officer. --Loc 321

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. --Loc 331

That is ironic, because the political origins of the United States lay in confronting precisely this kind of resource seizure by people in power. --Loc 347

“An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain,” one of the survivors wrote. “The equality of all men.” --Loc 434

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. --Loc 437

He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves. --Loc 509

Men perform the vast majority of bystander rescues, and children, the elderly, and women are the most common recipients of them. Children are helped regardless of gender, as are the elderly, but women of reproductive age are twice as likely to be helped by a stranger than men are. Men have to wait, on average, until age seventy-five before they can expect the same kind of assistance in a life-threatening situation that women get their whole lives. --Loc 539

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. --Loc 567

“The miners’ code of rescue meant that each trapped miner had the knowledge that he would never be buried alive if it were humanly possible for his friends to reach him,” a 1960 study called Individual and Group Behavior in a Coal Mine Disaster explained. “At the same time, the code was not rigid enough to ostracize those who could not face the rescue role.” --Loc 596

Canadian psychologists who interviewed the miners after their rescue determined that these early leaders tended to lack empathy and emotional control, that they were not concerned with the opinions of others, that they associated with only one or two other men in the group, and that their physical abilities far exceeded their verbal abilities. But all of these traits allowed them to take forceful, life-saving action where many other men might not. --Loc 608

Once the escape attempts failed, different kinds of leaders emerged. In what researchers termed the “survival period,” the ability to wait in complete darkness without giving up hope or succumbing to panic became crucial. Researchers determined that the leaders during this period were entirely focused on group morale and used skills that were diametrically opposed to those of the men who had led the escape attempts. They were highly sensitive to people’s moods, they intellectualized things in order to meet group needs, they reassured the men who were starting to give up hope, and they worked hard to be accepted by the entire group. --Loc 612

If women aren’t present to provide the empathic leadership that every group needs, certain men will do it. If men aren’t present to take immediate action in an emergency, women will step in. --Loc 619

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. --Loc 621

“In every upheaval we rediscover humanity and regain freedoms,” one sociologist wrote about England’s reaction to the war. “We relearn some old truths about the connection between happiness, unselfishness, and the simplification of living.” --Loc 628

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. --Loc 631

But I also believe that the world we are living in—and the peace that we have—is very fucked up if somebody is missing war. And many people do.” --Loc 638

What I had was classic short-term PTSD. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s exactly the response you want to have when your life is in danger: you want to be vigilant, you want to avoid situations where you are not in control, you want to react to strange noises, you want to sleep lightly and wake easily, you want to have flashbacks and nightmares that remind you of specific threats to your life, and you want to be, by turns, angry and depressed. Anger keeps you ready to fight, and depression keeps you from being too active and putting yourself in more danger. Flashbacks also serve to remind you of the danger that’s out there—a “highly efficient single-event survival-learning mechanism,” as one researcher termed it. All humans react to trauma in this way, and most mammals do as well. It may be unpleasant, but it’s preferable to getting killed. --Loc 694

I had a much older friend named Joanna who was very concerned about how I was faring psychologically after the wars I’d covered. Joanna died soon after I came back from one particularly long stint overseas, and I had almost no reaction to the news until I started talking to her nephew about the trips she’d taken during the early 1960s to register black voters in the South. People were getting killed for doing that, and I remember Joanna telling me that she and her husband, Ellis, never knew if she would make it back alive when she left on those trips. After a year of covering combat there was something about her willingness to die for others—for human dignity—that completely undid me. Stories about soldiers had the same effect on me: completely divorced from any sense of patriotism, accounts of great bravery could emotionally annihilate me. The human concern for others would seem to be the one story that, adequately told, no person can fully bear to hear. --Loc 707

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. --Loc 734

Killing seems to traumatize people regardless of the danger they’re in or the perceived righteousness of their cause. --Loc 787

The discrepancy might be due to the fact that intensive training and danger create what is known as unit cohesion—strong emotional bonds within the company or the platoon—and high unit cohesion is correlated with lower rates of psychiatric breakdown. --Loc 793

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. Among American vets, if one weeds out obviously exaggerated trauma on the one hand and deep trauma on the other, there are still enormous numbers of people who had utterly ordinary wartime experiences and yet feel dangerously alienated back home. Clinically speaking, such alienation is not the same as PTSD—and maybe deserves its own diagnostic term—but both result from military service abroad, so it’s understandable that vets and clinicians alike are prone to conflating them. Either way, it makes one wonder exactly what it is about modern society that is so mortally dispiriting to come home to. --Loc 838

“For the first time in [our] lives… we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear,” a former gunner in the 62nd Coast Artillery --Loc 847

“There were fifteen men to a gun. You had fifteen guys who for the first time in their lives were not living in a competitive society. We had no hopes of becoming officers. I liked that feeling very much… It was the absence of competition and boundaries and all those phony standards that created the thing I loved about the Army.” --Loc 850

What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation, so during disasters there is a net gain in well-being. --Loc 858

Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. --Loc 863

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” --Loc 868

First, 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. --Loc 930

Secondly, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen—or be encouraged to see themselves—as victims. One can be deeply traumatized, as firemen are by the deaths of both colleagues and civilians, without being viewed through the lens of victimhood. --Loc 933

The one way that soldiers are never allowed to see themselves during deployment is as victims, because the passivity of victimhood can get them killed. It’s yelled, beaten, and drilled out of them long before they get close to the battlefield. But when they come home they find themselves being viewed so sympathetically that they’re often excused from having to fully function in society. Some of them truly can’t function, and those people should be taken care of immediately; but imagine how confusing it must be to the rest of them. --Loc 937

What I liked about the encounter was that it showed how very close the energy of male conflict and male closeness can be. --Loc 982

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. I once asked a combat vet if he’d rather have an enemy in his life or another close friend. He looked at me like I was crazy. “Oh, an enemy, a hundred percent,” he said. “Not even close. I already got a lot of friends.” He thought about it a little longer. “Anyway, all my best friends I’ve gotten into fights with—knock-down, drag-out fights. Granted we were always drunk when it happened, but think about that.” --Loc 984

There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous loss may be to community. --Loc 995

If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to. If the future of the planet depends on, say, rationing water, communities of neighbors will be able to enforce new rules far more effectively than even local government. It’s how we evolved to exist, and it obviously works. --Loc 997

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. --Loc 1001

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. --Loc 1002

The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction—all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most. --Loc 1012

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. It’s the opposite of the military.” --Loc 1020

In this sense, littering is an exceedingly petty version of claiming a billion-dollar bank bailout or fraudulently claiming disability payments. When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in. And when you fraudulently claim money from the government, you are ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors—or somebody else’s friends, family, and neighbors. That diminishes you morally far more than it diminishes your country financially. --Loc 1023

The myth addresses a fundamental fear in human society: that you can defend against external enemies but still remain vulnerable to one lone madman in your midst. --Loc 1039

Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long. --Loc 1142

“If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us?” --Loc 1154

Bauman obviously felt that true leadership—the kind that lives depend on—may require powerful people to put themselves last, and that he was one of those people. --Loc 1195

He didn’t understand the greed. He didn’t understand if you have a hundred million dollars, why do you need another million?” --Loc 1198

He clearly understood that belonging to society requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs. --Loc 1200

Strange Trails by Lord Huron

Strange Trails by Lord Huron