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Sebastian Junger On Tribes, Belonging and The Quest For Meaning

In his excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger explores our evolutionary wiring for community and how our modern aspirations for “success” and “wealth” paradoxically attempt to distance ourselves from it, which ends up making us unhappier and emotionally unhealthier in the pursuit.

He argues that to restore communal bonds and collective identity as a society, we must take an honest look at the narratives, behaviors, and modern conveniences and temptations that keep us trapped in unhappy, unhealthy isolation:

“In the United States, we live in the largest economy in the world. We’re arguably the most powerful country in the world and one of the wealthiest. But we also have some of the highest rates of depression, and suicide, and addiction of any country in the world.

In material terms, we’re doing incredibly well. But in basic human terms, we seem to be in a huge amount of psychological and maybe even spiritual distress. Is our material wealth undermining our psychological health? It’s not a stupid question.

Of course, there are stressors that come with poverty as well. But one thing you lose with affluence is you lose close communal connections with other people. The less you have, the more you need other people to make up for the shortfall. In a poor African village, everyone is pulling their water out of the same well, literally and metaphorically. We mustn’t romanticize poverty, of course, and the stressors that are associated with that and all kinds of other ills. But it does seem to mitigate psychological harm.

One study that I cited in my book Tribe was a cross-cultural look at depression levels. People with the highest rates of depression were urban dwellers in North America. That was the highest income group. The lowest levels of depression were people in rural Nigeria. The poorest.

So I look at our society and I think okay, the Amish don’t drive cars. They have very low levels of depression and suicide. The car brings great benefits, but if you really wanted to make a more cohesive communal society, you might think about getting rid of the car. That’s not going to happen. But if you want to really have an honest conversation about solutions to this particular problem, I would say the car is a great stressor in terms of social cohesion.

Another is the smartphone/social media. I think the smartphone is psychologically catastrophic for people. What a misnomer: “social media”. It’s an outright lie to call it social” when it really is profoundly anti-social. To me it’s like the lie perpetrated by the tobacco industry in the 1970s that tobacco wasn’t bad for you. It’s on that level of deceit. People in Silicon Valley who engineered this stuff, who developed the social medial tools and all the software and the hardware that support them, as parents they’re not allowing their children screen time because they know it’s so toxic.

So when people ask what can we do? I advise going to the nearest body of water, taking your smartphone out of your pocket, and seeing how many skips you can get out of it before it drops to the bottom of the lake forever. That’s something we can each do to rejoin the human community.”

The key to knowledge is asking deep questions like this because in contemplation of truth we can find the best answers that work for who we are.

Great Interview With Sebastian Junger:

A really good interview where he talks about his book Tribe and the importance of loyalty, belonging and the quest for meaning.

His Documentary Film Restrepo:

The trailer for the award-winning documentary Sebastian Junger made about the futility, hopelessness and psychological toll on American soldiers in the war in Afghanistan.

I highly recommend watching this filming for a better understanding of the power of tribes, war, and human psychology.

Full Talk On Tribes, Homecoming And Belonging At Google

A fascinating 1-hour talk Sabastian gave at Google about the ideas exploring in his book and the striking paradoxes of wealth and modern life.

My Commentary On Tribes:

In my opinion, the single most important factor for success and happiness in life is having a strong community that we support and it supports us back.

It is becoming increasingly common in Western societies that people live without the support and sense of belonging provided by a tribe-like community. While modern societies pride themselves on their human rights and civilized values, there are a number of fundamental ways that modern life impoverishes the human spirit while wreaking irrational destruction against living ecosystems.

I have lived in two of the most highly economically developed countries like the United States and Canada and less economically developed nations such as Thailand, Costa Rica and Chile.

The paradox of living in highly developed countries can be this nagging sense of loneliness and disconnection because so much of life has been commodified by the market and as a result, many relationships feel contrived or transactional.

Even the modern relationship with nature is superficial and disconnected. A growing majority of people living in cities have never gone very far into nature from a paved road or seen the full majesty of the Milky Way Galaxy at night without all the light pollution.

I’ve noticed a huge difference felt in the sense of community between developed and developing countries. In poorer countries, people earn much less money and have less economic security, which makes them more dependent on their family for survival.

This makes family very important and multiple generations of a family often live under the same roof because there is no other option. It also creates a stronger sense of identity as well as the support and belonging of people that have your back. Provided the family isn’t totally dysfunctional or their children don’t become educated to have completely or opposing values, it works pretty well.

In contrast, in Canada or the United States, the individualistic ideal of self-achieved independence can offer greater freedom of choice but for people who aren’t really good at cultivating friendships and family ties, it can lead to incredible alienation and an anxiety-provoking sense of loneliness.

The often shallow relationships we have through work and social media are not an effective substitute for face-to-face connections. We absolutely need people in our lives who we can feel vulnerable around and share our deepest emotions without fear of judgment.

I hope the core message of Sebastian Junger’s Tribes that we still need tribes, a sense of belonging and the pursuit of meaning to thrive in the 21st century spreads.

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