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Tribe

Book Thoughts is a series where I write about things books make me think about. Simple as that. Not exactly summaries. Not exactly reviews. Just thoughts that occasionally veer away from the books.


“It was better when it was really bad” someone had graffiti’ed on a wall in war-torn Bosnia.

More than 100,000 people had been killed in the war, and the idea that times were better in those days likely seems outrageous to most.

But that’s one of the counter-intuitive ideas underlying that warmth and cohesion you find in a “tribe” — these are the people who have been through some bad stuff together. That’s what makes them different than service providers, work colleagues, or even those urban neighbors you’ve never met. When people are put in a situation where they’re pushed to take responsibility for one another, they connect with one another in ways the rest of us can’t imagine. The author, Sebastian Junger, says this is why war may feel better than peace, and disasters may be remembered more fondly than weddings.

Large scale studies have backed up this idea, finding that areas hit by disaster produced mentally healthier people during WWII. As Junger put it, “Disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating … Class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group.”

It also happened in a Chilean town after 90% of the population was killed by an earthquake in 1970. A status-leveling effect was seen in the survivors, and a sense of brotherhood emerged as all classes came together in collaboration.

For the most part, modern society isn’t as conducive to these types of relationships, likely because times are easier than they used to be. And as affluence goes up, so does suicide and depression. In the United States white, middle-aged males have the highest rate of suicide.

Another interesting examples is that in the early days of the United States, Westerners were baffled when settlers occasionally joined some of the Native American tribes. Meanwhile, the Native Americans had little interest in joining the European-settled communities.

What was so unappealing about Western society?

Again, the general idea is that more affluent societies rely less on each other and that this leads to alienation, depression, and suicide. Or to look at it in the inverse, “Poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are.”

In many ways, it seems that we’re detached from this natural sense of community and togetherness that comprised human society for thousands of years. As Junger put it, “humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

I can’t help but think about my recent readings about Taoism and how it’s all about realigning humans with our nature. I was trying to pinpoint how exactly we’re out of touch with this nature, and Tribe certainly illuminates some of those factors.

Overall, I feel that I’ve barely conveyed the ideas in this book, but I’m comforted that my goal for Book Thoughts wasn’t to summarize or review the material, but only share some thoughts about it (you’ll probably see me reminding myself of this often throughout the series).

Ultimately, this was a fascinating read. Coming from a small town and now living in a city as an adult, the value of tribes hit home in a few ways for me. I’ve gone through phases where I was overly critical of my little hometown in Iowa, but there’s no denying that there’s an underlying value to knowing everyone in your community, waving to every other person you see in the store, and having each other’s backs if crisis ever hits, when the flowers roll in and you’re showered with hugs and prayers.

Today in the city, you can go through an entire day interacting with no one but strangers. Life is arguably easier for most than ever before, and we shouldn’t diminish the ways we’ve progressed, but when you consider that “humans thrive on hardship” and tribes something still feels off. I hope we will find a stronger sense of belonging as we continue to progress. May this book be a good reminder for us to realign our priorities to spend more time with the people we love and cherish most.

Love always from Planet Earth,

Doug