Going tribal

Dear H,

People give several explanations for America's mental health crisis, and one of them is that we're Americans.  It sounds unpatriotic at first glance but at second glance it makes sense.  Sebastian Junger's brilliant theory, stated in his book Tribe, is that we weren't quite ready to be Americans.  We evolved in tribes that were small and close-knit, with little privacy, lots of shared hardships, and lots of equality.  Our brains were built for it and natural selection weeded out those of us who weren't.

Then after God-knows-how-much time in this state, some of us restructured those tribes.  The human mind, at least in some parts of the world, couldn't just get along with freezing cold and hungry kids and losing wars and cheap-o flintware; so what some of us did was to do things about it.  We started making little improvements, here and there, that didn't seem like much at first but when added together changed the totality.  Some of us bred more and outnumbered our neighbors.  Some of us kept the people we bred from dying.  The weapons we made were better than others'; we found ways to ride horses and grow corn and build castles.  Some of us became rich and classes were established and equality was ruined*.  Eventually the tribes became nations; those nations became countries; and the man who was hard-wired for tribal life found himself fighting for himself almost by himself.

Junger argues that on some level we aren't ready for this.  Not on a cultural level, but on a biological one.  We changed our environment but we were incapable of changing our neurology.  He says we simply haven't had enough time to.  So Junger went around the world to study war zones and catastrophes, and what he found was that the best of times, for many people, as Dickens said, were the worst of times.  People might be afraid of having bombs dropped on them, but even if the offices were open, almost nobody in 1940 London was getting admitted for depression.  Snipers might be blockading Sarajevo, but almost nobody was lining up to see psychologists for anxiety.  Epileptic fits petered out, and people almost entirely stopped hanging themselves.  The worse things got in a physical sense, the better people got in a psychological sense.  A temporary PTSD aside, life got worse for psychiatrists and better for their patients.

Junger's theory is that people who are in mass messes have purpose.  Camaraderie.  They work in groups and they hold each other tight and they make love like it might be the last time.  They sleep in masses and share what they've got, and these acts are just as important to our health as exercise and warm clothes and vegetables.  The danger threatens our lives as it brightens our souls.  We oftentimes feel at home in a bad mess.  We don't feel alienation, or depression, or misplaced anxiety, or neurosis, because a large-scale catastrophe activates the whole us.  We were born outside the tribe and when we're in bomb shelters we enter it.  We thought we needed prescriptions but it turned out we needed each other.  We thought we were surmounting all our problems with peace and capitalism and it turns out we had only exchanged them.  We were warmer on the outside and colder on the in-.

Junger says our soldiers get the worst of it.  They run off to war, sleep in rooms with a hundred guys, share danger, have purpose and structure and perhaps most importantly a well-defined enemy.  Then after having their friends blown up in front of them, their countrymen pull the rug out from under them.  After a time spent in The Tribe, they're sent home to sleep alone, by neighbors who don't care about or understand what they've been through, to work for bosses who don't appreciate them, and with people who weren't in trenches alongside them.  That is, if they even get a job.

The Americans of the 19th century were closer to the earth and had a solution for all this.  First off, they were religious, which meant they were part of a closely-knit religious community and felt God was there alongside them.  The importance of churches for mental health can't be overstated.  Secondly, Richard White notes in The Republic for which it Stands that around a third of all American men belonged to some kind of a fraternity.  Life was harder, physically, in the 19th century.  But fathers would eat and sing together; they'd encourage one another to be better fathers and husbands and citizens in general; people would make sure everyone was okay, and if you died or hit hard times the fraternity would look after your wife and your children.  Laissez-faire said every man for himself and the Americans said not everything in life is just business.  They didn't have the meds but they largely didn't need them.  The closer you were to the frontier the closer you had to band together.  If you found yourself lost in a city, you were always two steps away from a fraternity, or a church.

A comparison with today is depressing in itself.  What's left of The Elks, The Foreign Legion, The Sons of Norway, The Odd Fellows, The Knights of Pythias, and even the Freemasons, is pitiable at best.  They still have lodges but the lodges are empty; and if not empty, then peopled scarcely with geezers -- like nursing homes and the Episcopalian church.  Americans are leaving church in droves and trying to find meaning in perhaps the worst of all places -- in political factions and fly-by-night causes.   White Americans aren't breeding much, and when they do, their children tend to move away from them.  We earned enough to have kids sleep in their own cribs in their own rooms, and were surprised to find that not holding them enough made them neurotic.  We pay the doctor because we weren't watched closely by neighbors.  We kill ourselves because we don't feel anyone needs us.

Junger says white people used to "go native," but none of the natives (to his knowledge) went honky.  The racism of the 19th century aside, he believes it's because many of us aren't ready to leave a tribe.  I think on some level he's right.  The question today isn't whether we'll get the right meds to the right people.  This thinking has led to a nation of addicts and a whole slew of suicides.  The question is whether we can make anyone believe in God again -- and if church fails, to at least go out and join the Elks.

Your father,

PS:  I now realize that Junger's merely the first person to spell all this out for me so clearly.  It's the underlying message and main attraction of every cult and street gang.  Kurt Vonnegut once said in one of his graduation speeches that the main reason couples fight so much and divorce one another is because they're relying on one person to do the work of a community.  He said that when you hear couples yelling at one another, what they're really saying is you're not enough people.  I think this is a bit simplistic but it's something worth considering.

Francis Chan discovered this and it led him to abandon his megachurch.  He found out, from a young man who stopped showing up, that the church of Christ wasn't as family as the young man's old street gang.  This led perhaps the greatest preacher of the new millennium to give up his thousands so he could share food and live close with a few dozen.  I suppose this made the other mega-pastors cringe, but who knows what God thinks?  Maybe He likes it.

*Junger has a very interesting idea about Democrats and Republicans.  He believes the two parties represent two fundamental aspects of tribe mentality, and are thus essentially eternal.  The Democrats represent that side of us that sees a wounded tribesman and still gets him a chunk of the public bacon.  The Republicans represent that side of us that sees a healthy tribesman lay around all day and tries to keep him from mooching.  Both of them are essential to our herd-brain and thus our survival as a group-unit.  The problem with this theory is that Democrats have gone too far with "equality," and Republicans, according to the New York Times, give far more to charity in general anyway.  The Democrats believe in giving -- but mostly with other people's money.   

Another observation he makes is that when we were in tribes, a man who swindled the majority and ruined them would likely be killed or exiled.  Today in many cases he gets away with it.  Junger notes that during the last century our suicide rate closely mirrored our unemployment; and during the financial crash of 2008, Americans saw an uptick of suicides more pronounced than our total casualties from the Iraq and Afghani wars combined.  They jumped nearly five percent.

What this means, essentially, is that a small number of Wall Street tricksters conned Americans, crashed the economy, were bailed out by the government, escaped with golden parachutes, and then somewhere around 5,000 fathers, sons, brothers and husbands, perhaps most of them responsible, hard-working citizens, caught in circumstances they didn't start and couldn't control, slit their own wrists while the tricksters got rich.  He wonders why we let these banksters run free while Bowe Bergdahl was widely condemned.  I think the answer is simple.  We let them go because to not do it would mean either legislating ex post-facto, which means any of us could be subject to mob violence at any point, or breaking the solemn word of American contracts, which would destroy our faith in our system of investment.  We had a choice between making a few douchebags rich and ruining the country -- and we chose wisely, I think.  Still I think they ought to be tarred and feathered.

*For all the talk about suicide in this book, he forgets to mention that the places hit hardest by suicide aren't in the West, but in Eastern Europe, Russia, India, and Africa.  We may not have spiritual hope in America, but we have material dreams -- which are enough to keep us busy.  For a while.

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  1. We may not have spiritual hope in America, but we have material dreams - Not so, lad. Spiritual hope is still strong in fly over country.


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