Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe had me instantly hooked, and I think that it’s the most important book I’ve read this year. The scope of this book is amazing: in only 136 pages it covers issues ranging from war and PTSD to social institutions and politics to work/life balance and family to rituals in tribal societies. It seems like everything Sebastian Junger is talking about in this book is directly relevant to me and my thought processes in the last few years, which not only makes it clear why I found it so engrossing but also deserves explanation.

The central premise of Tribe is that human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history as tribal people who live in groups of around 50 deeply interdependent people, and that much of our social and psychological malaise today is rooted in the fact that this is no longer the case. Our wealth and technology have allowed us to become individualistic and self-serving, balancing the benefits of less physical need and disease with sharp increases in mental and social disorder. Money cannot buy us happiness, and in many ways it actually costs us our happiness.

Junger begins by reflecting on the fact that early European settlers in North America ran off to join indigenous tribes with alarming frequency, and even prisoners of war who had been taken by the tribes often refused to be repatriated into settler society, sometimes even sneaking back to join their former captors. Meanwhile, there was no traffic the other way: nobody was lining up to join “civilization”, even with all of its technological advances. Indigenous culture was very egalitarian and free; European culture was based on strict rules and laws that regulated every aspect of life under hierarchical structures of authority. Tribal life had relatively little work, while the pilgrims worked exhaustively. European settlers almost invariably held the notion that they were better off than the “savages” – but those who had experienced tribal life tended to never come back.
Junger goes on to talk about war and disasters. As a war reporter over the last 30 years, he’s seen a lot of war zones and noticed that soldiers, and even civilians in war zones, often miss the war. This is because they had such close and intimate bonds with the people around them during those difficult times, when common needs and the drive to survive tear down all social divisions and hierarchies. In the wake of an earthquake, or when a city is besieged, people look out for each other in ways that they don’t in good times. That social cohesion has an incredible psychological effect. During the Blitz of London, for example, the government had expected people to break down under the strain in large numbers, but the reality was that admission to mental hospitals went down. In a study of child soldiers, those children who returned from war to socially integrated societies mostly recovered, sometimes completely; but children who returned from war to socially stratified villages remained traumatized. Chronic PTSD, he suggests, is an issue of disordered recovery, not an automatic result of trauma; short-term PTSD is a normal response to trauma, but chronic PTSD, which is increasingly common even among troops that see relatively less action in war, has a lot to do with the fact that soldiers are unable to properly integrate into our individualistic, materialistic society where the close bonds they had with their unit no longer exist.

Why is this relevant to me? Aside from thinking a great deal about war and peace, trauma, social psychology, and policy, I have also recently made very large changes to my life because I have become disillusioned with the way that we live and work in our society.

Less than a year ago, I had a career. I had reached the Director level in my profession, and was making plans to pursue a PhD. I was doing everything right: at 30 years old I was moving upward, had a Master’s degree, had built my first house and had no other debt, and was married with one child. If I carried on that trajectory, “success” in life was virtually guaranteed. Except that in order to get that Master’s degree and that job, my wife and I had to move very far from our families; to pursue that PhD we would need to move farther still; and that my passions were only incidental to my career, so even if I could get a job in my field of study it would be low-paying and obscure, which meant that I would probably always be pursuing my passions at the expense of either my career or my family or both. My passions, then, took a backseat to family and career; and eventually, family took a backseat to career too.

No career is worth losing your family. It seemed that in order to pursue work that seemed meaningful, we had to be willing to be separated from our tribes. This seemed okay at first, when it was just the two of us, but as time wore on we missed our parents, siblings, and cousins. When I was growing up I was very close with a lot of my cousins, but at this point I haven’t seen some of them in over 5 years, and I’m not sure we’ve all been together in 15. Now we’re spread over three provinces, going where the work is or getting pushed out of places with high living costs. I miss them with a depth that shocks me to acknowledge. My parents come to visit, but their ability to travel is not unlimited, and video calls are no replacement for a tribe. Once we had a child of our own, the lack of close family bonds and support became so much more apparent; we felt we couldn’t be good parents without having grandparents around too. Because my son deserves his grandparents, and they deserve him.

So at the beginning of this year we moved away from our careers (my wife was also at the Director level in her department) and settled in my wife’s home province. Crashing on your in-laws’ couch for months, unemployed, is a far cry from working overtime at an “important” job, but it was surprisingly fulfilling. We had moved based on the instinct that our “successful” life wasn’t what it seemed, and even while my self-worth plunged on the basis of being unemployed and homeless, I found a growing sense of connection with my own little tribe, my wife and son, that was deeper and more powerful than any sense of purpose and self-worth that I had gleaned from my career.

My priorities have completed shifted this year. My goal is to find a job that allows me to be at home as much as possible, and I’m just starting a job that allows me to work only two days per week. I’ve been thinking about the need for jobs like that quite a bit over the past year: in an information economy in which information is cheap, producers of information either need a Guaranteed Livable Income (Mincome) or part-time work that pays a living wage but still gives them time to be productive in their own field. I’ve unexpectedly come across the latter, and I’m looking forward to being a family man five days a week and writing during nap times.

A few days after I was hired for this incredible new job packing cheese two days per week, and as I was still coming to terms with how that would reorient my life away from being centred on work and toward being centred on my family, I picked up Tribe and suddenly every hard choice we’ve made over the past year made sense. This book has given me a conceptual framework within which to understand and express why I was so dissatisfied with a seemingly successful life, why we were so motivated to put family first, and why, somehow, our society needs to find a way to help other people to make that priority shift if we want to address the growing social and psychological problems we face.

Tribe is a short, page-turning read about a host of pressing issues, translating anthropological and psychological research into a very accessible and concise narrative. Five stars.

You can listen to Sebastian Junger talking about the book here.

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