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On Homecoming and Belonging

by Sebastian Junger

(London Times)

We are safer and more affluent today than at any time in history. We can connect to our friends and family instantly, eat what we like and live twice as long as our ancestors. Yet dissatisfaction nibbles away at us. Alienation and mental illness erode our wellbeing. In fact, the richer we get the more depressed and suicidal we become: a survey by the World Health Organisation showed that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at eight times the rate they do in poor countries.

The reason for this, according to the war journalist Sebastian Junger, is that we are all alienated from our tribe. The communities that we evolved in have been obliterated by modernity. In their place we have comfort and ease, but little purpose or meaning.

Junger's book started as an essay in Vanity Fair on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Having spent much of his life covering war and people in dangerous jobs (he wrote a book about deep-sea fishermen that became the film The Perfect Storm), Junger argued that it was not so much war that caused PTSD, but re-entry into society.

During war, soldiers discover the deep satisfaction of living in a true community; they find their tribe. When they return to a complacent and atomised society, they are unable to adapt. In fact the majority of American veterans who suffer from PTSD have not seen combat. It is the contrast between military and modern civilian life that throws them. America is particularly bad for this. They fete and venerate their veterans, but they do not understand them. Junger contrasts this to Israel, where much of the population has served and understands war and PTSD rates are far lower.

Our tribal longings also explain why people often behave so altruistically after a disaster, such as a mining explosion or an earthquake. Such catastrophes strip us of centuries of social evolution, so that we can become the people whom our primal selves want us to be.

Junger's short book is fascinating, insightful and built on real and difficult experiences as well as a background in anthropology. There is clearly much that he loathes about modern life. But though we find it hard and empty at times, the fact we are detached from the violent and terrifying lives our tribal ancestors led should be celebrated.

Junger could also say more on how we might try to rediscover our tribal past, minus the violence that accompanied it. Is this even possible? It might be that we have permanently left behind our tribal identities for something far messier, but much safer. If so, this seems like a sensible trade.

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