Can soldiers teach us something about connecting?
Do you know your next-door neighbor? Maybe. Do you rely on your neighbor on a daily basis? Probably not – and author Sebastian Junger says that’s a problem.
In his latest book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” Junger writes about the connections people feel in a small, interdependent community and the isolation they can feel in larger communities.
“The point of the book is that we’re all suffering the consequences of the alienation that’s endemic in modern society,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Wellfeet.
Many studies have looked at the psychological benefits of having strong social connections, but Junger feels that the deepest forms of connection – a combination of loyalty, inter-reliance and cooperation – are rare, usually felt only by soldiers and survivors of natural disasters.
The author of several best-sellers, such as “The Perfect Storm,” “War,” and “A Death in Belmont,” Junger is a part-time Cape Cod resident. He’s covered wars in Sarajevo and Afghanistan.
“Psychologists are still trying to nail down what is the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) range, but the consensus is that it’s as high as 20 percent of the entire military,” he said. “But at most, 10 percent of the military is engaged in any combat, so there’s obviously some problem with the society they come home to.”
How Can We Feel More Connected?
“One of the things that’s going on is that when people come back from, say the Peace Corps or a military deployment where they are actually not in combat, or any situation where people are in very, very close quarters with a group that they depend on – when people come back from those experiences to modern society, the thing that is psychologically disruptive for them is the transition from communalism to individualism,” Junger said.
To change the situation, we need to change our society so that we can all feel more connected, Junger said.
“I don’t think we can social engineer it to be just for the troops, yet somehow leave the rest of us out of the equation. We need to help ourselves, and that will help the troops.”
Modern society has enormous benefits, he said, from anesthesia to the philosophy of the law. The downside is that communal encampments and a more closely aligned society are not logically going to replace our current way of life.
“A tribe can’t exist in modern society. If you define it as a group of people that you depend on for your survival, that’s gone. A tribe in that sense was the people that live around you and you depend on them to eat and sleep safely at night. I don’t think that’s coming back to the great American suburb.
We do have “substitute tribes,” like sports teams, he said. While they’re appealing because they can bring us together in a communal way, they aren’t the real thing, he added.
“One thing that’s interesting is that the Amish have very low rates of depression and suicide. The current thinking about that is that it’s because they don’t drive and that forces them to live basically their entire lives where they sleep at night. And that means they’re living their lives in close proximity to a finite number of people that they’re deeply connected to. For all of the undoubtable stresses of that, there is an incredible emotional sense of safety.
“You can see that in a platoon in combat – the sense of emotional safety of being in a small group.”
Fostering a Sense of Community Spirit
So, how can we take advantage of the emotional benefits of communal living, without actually experiencing the real thing?
“I think we can foster a sense of community spirit even though our communities don’t need us to do that,” Junger said. “If you live in a nice suburb, you don’t need your neighbors to survive, but wouldn’t it be nice to do things collectively with them once in a while. You have to proactively go out and elicit that kind of behavior.
“At the macro end, the really poisonous political dialogue that’s going on – both parties have engaged in this at one point or another – those kinds of things at the national level are incredibly corrosive. The bad example at the top does trickle down and it affects our behavior and our experiences at the very local level.”
Junger remembers the ways neighbors helped each other after Hurricane Bob hit Cape Cod in 1991.
“It’s wired in us to do that. If you think about it in evolutionary terms – which is my favorite pastime – if hardship and danger didn’t elicit pro-social reactions, we wouldn’t be here. “If hardship and danger triggered people’s most selfish and anti-social reactions, we would have died out as a species.
“As descendants of people who reacted in pro-social ways to hardship, we are hardwired toward that way of being, he said. The ones who didn’t did not survive to pass on their genes.
“It doesn’t surprise me that even at the sort of petty level of a blizzard in a Western country that has snowplows, even at that level, people react well. It’s programmed into us by natural selection, by evolution, to do that.”
[Featured Image courtesy of Tim Hetherington, as seen on Twitter via @sebastianjunger]