Men are meant to live in a tribe. Why is it that veterans in non-combat zones or who saw very little danger often experience the worst bouts of PTSD? Why do soldiers often miss war? What causes survivors of war-torn cities or natural disasters to look back wistfully to those days? Why is it that suicide rates and mental health issues decrease during times of crisis? These are the questions addressed by Sebastian Junger in his 2016 book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, and they have significant implications for improving our lives as men.
Tribes in Colonial America
Junger begins by looking at an interesting fact about life in colonial America: significant numbers of colonists would abandon their families and communities to live among the Indians, but almost no Indians reciprocated this act. Further, when white prisoners living among the Indians were ransomed back after being taken prisoner in battles or raids, many of them either would refuse to return home or would simply go back and live among the Indians. This was not the case with Indians who had lived, often for years, among the colonists. They would go back and not return. This emigration of colonists to the Indians was significant enough that the colonies often made doing so a criminal act in order to stop the flow.
Why did this happen? Why did people leave “civilization” to live among the “savages”? While the reason is likely multi-faceted, it’s clear that being a part of a tribe (i.e., being intimately connected to other people) satisfied something inside of them that the comforts and conveniences of civilization did not. When comparing those who experienced both cultures (Indian vs. colonist), the vast majority decided that their quality of life was better living with a tribe.
Mental Health Improves in a Tribe
What’s more, Junger points out that the rates of mental illness and suicide among tribal groups are quite low when compared with those of modern society. His explanation for this is simple: civilization brings more affluence, which allows us to live independently of each other, which often results in isolation. Isolation leads to a decreased quality of life and increased rates of mental illness and suicide. In Part I of this series, found here, I talked about how technology allows us to easily go through an entire day without speaking to another person. While few will isolate themselves to that extreme, Junger makes the point that technology, urbanization, and increased affluence have led people to live largely surrounded by and mostly encountering complete strangers. He notes that we can be “surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone”. It doesn’t take a sociologist to know that there are plenty of men today who experience that feeling daily.
Interestingly, Junger notes that that feeling seems to go away in communities that experience major crises. In 1940, the Nazis focused aerial attacks on the civilian areas of London, dropping thousands of tons of bombs in residential areas in order to break the people’s will to continue the war. Instead, the opposite happened. As a result of the rampant suffering, the people became more and more determined to fight. The interesting part, Junger points out, is that during this time, admissions in psychiatric wards decreased and current psychiatric patients saw a decrease in their symptoms. Despite widespread predictions of panic, the mental illness and suicide rates went down. These developments were not limited to London, as similar results occurred from the Allied bombing of German cities. In fact, on both sides, it was the cities that were not bombed that suffered from poor morale and increased mental illness. Similar findings resulted from research done on civil wars throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
This phenomenon is not limited to war. It surfaces in many different crisis situations. Junger cites a 1961 report on how communities respond to crises such as the London Blitz. The report found that the advancement of society had “disrupted” the social bonds that are vital to human psychology, but that disasters forced people out of isolation and into relationships out of sheer necessity. These relationships, when driven by a common purpose, whether it be survival or defeating the enemy (or both), satisfy a deep need in the human heart. When the crisis ends, people no longer need each other, so isolation gradually resumes and our quality of life decreases. This fact led many who were evacuated from besieged cities to risk their lives to return and those who endured the hardship to long for it to return. “It was better when it was really bad” was spray-painted on a wall in Bosnia years after the violence there had ended.
Some Men Miss Combat, but Most Miss Their Tribe
This sentiment is often echoed by soldiers who have returned home from combat tours. Simply put, they miss the war. While this is likely due to a number of factors, such as having a clear mission and an accompanying sense of purpose and being able to live out the masculine virtues of strength, courage, skillfulness, and honor, it’s also clear that they miss the brotherhood. While being at home is more comfortable and certainly much safer, it’s less satisfying than being with a unified group that is working towards a common goal.
Junger is no stranger to war. He spent significant time as a journalist in Sarajevo during the siege of the city, as well in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Much of his acclaim stems from his book and documentaries chronicling war and its effect on its participants, both civilians and soldiers. Upon his return from Afghanistan, Junger had a bout of short-term PTSD. His research on that topic uncovered an interesting fact: the level of social support one has in his life is the best predictor of how one will recover from PTSD, not the severity of the trauma. In fact, Junger points out that it’s often those who saw little to no combat or were rarely in harm’s way that have the worst cases of PTSD, simply because they have a lack of social connection when they return home. This lack of social connection, which has continued to increase, has had significant consequences for our veterans. He notes that veterans today “return from wars that are safer than those their fathers and grandfathers fought, and yet far greater numbers of them wind up alienated and depressed.”
This phenomenon is not restricted to combat, as similar results are found in those who return from long-term service in the Peace Corps or on mission trips. Thus, Junger concludes, much of what is diagnosed as PTSD is likely just depression that results from going from communal living to individualistic living. While this explanation is subject to some criticisms, it is intuitive. The statistics are pretty clear that we’re wealthier and safer than at any point in history, but that we’re also the most depressed, anxious, and stressed. As Junger laments
“[w]hatever the technological advancements of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”
These effects have been especially hard on men. According to the Center for Disease Control, male suicide rates have increased over the last 20 years, and men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, and that number is much higher in some countries. Men make up 75% of substance abusers. What’s worse is that, as bad as these statistics are, they don’t include the scores of men who don’t commit suicide, get diagnosed as clinically depressed, or abuse illegal drugs, but are unsatisfied with life. While there is likely no single cause of these problems, there is little doubt that Junger is onto something: men who have a deep connection to other men have a better life experience, and that a lack of these connections carries significant negative consequences for our physical and mental health, and our overall satisfaction with life. In order to thrive, men need a tribe, a band of brothers, a pack to run with. But, in 2017, having such relationships is much easier said than done. Tackling that problem is our next mission.
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