A terrific book is out there waiting for you: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, a combat journalist in Afghanistan who found that his experience on returning home from deployment was shared by many others in the military: it was hard to fit back in. He longed for the camaraderie you experience in battle, in a war zone where it’s life and death and each member of the team has to be there to support the other. Psychologically we need a tribe–that’s how we evolved. Living a successful modern life means we don’t need each other physically as much any more, but the need to forge connections still haunts us. When we are deprived of those connections we get messed up; when we find them, something clicks and our lives fall into place
The irony is that in peacetime, as affluence grows, we tend to be on our own making money to buy more stuff: we grow apart,we get selfish, we even get mean. But when we’re faced with a common enemy in a combat zone, or back on the home front supporting the troops as the nation did in World War II, we get that sense of belonging, of greater purpose. We come together, we share resources and have a sense of the tribe.
Junger is talking about what I call the Sacrament of the Group–a profound, feeling when we’re actively involved with people who are all on the same wavelength, with amplitudes reinforcing each other in what can sometimes be a sublime experience. You can see this at political rallies, in concert halls, or at the World Cup. As a moment of transcendence it’s a powerful, fulfilling force, but at a more mundane level, it is the bond of the tribe that Junger is referring to, something we sense day in, day out. We’re missing this now in an America that is splintered as never before, which is why the vets are finding re-entry so difficult. How do we change that?
As Junger points out, we don’t get there by speaking contemptuously of our fellow citizens. The trolls are out there on the internet, and one of them has even leapt out of his reality TV screen to snatch a presidential nomination based on insults and umbrage. To glory in contempt is to destroy civilization. We should all be teaching our children to respect the dignity of everyone, even those they disagree with. This is a job for the family, schools, and community leaders. The primary campaign of 2016 is a measure of how far we’ve fallen.
We all need to belong to something, but tribes nestle within each other like Russian dolls. We begin with the family, then the neighborhood groups, and the community. Beyond that there is the city, the state, the nation, but ultimately we can’t forget that we are all citizens-of-the world. Our task for the future is to get used to the idea of belonging both locally AND globally.
Sebastian Junger appeared on the radio show On Point. It’s worth listening to.