Tribes, Anxiety, and Creation

On Tuesday I was home visiting with my family. My sister and I started talking, and it became one of those hour-long heart-to-heart sharing sessions, where we got vulnerable and talked about what was really going on with us. One of the things we discovered is that both of us feel anxiety regularly, often on a daily basis.

I’ve felt anxiety for as long as I can remember, and from what I’ve heard, I am far from unique; most people I talk to, when they’re willing to be open, share that they are regularly anxious. This is not exactly ground-breaking news; I imagine that most of us would simply nod our heads if someone told us that “most people regularly feel anxiety.”

But I got curious about it. Why should this be the case? Why do most people feel anxiety most days of their lives? It seems rather absurd to me. Some people have legitimate cause for anxiety, but most of us don’t, not really — we’re not going to starve, we’re not in danger of being killed, and the people in our lives will continue to love and care for us. So what’s going on that we feel anxious? Has it always been this way for people?


I think that, actually, it hasn’t. There is a type of human society where anxiety is reportedly rare, where people in general are more confident, happy, and content than in our society. These are the indigenous societies, that have retained the traditional human way of life. I’m not going to argue that we should drop everything and become indigenous peoples, but I think it’s worth looking at their society to see what they have that we’re missing.

The first thing about these indigenous societies is that they’ve living the way humans evolved to live — the indigenous (or ‘paleolithic’) lifestyle was our way of life for 200,000 years, 95% of our past (if the history of our species were laid out on a ruler, the indigenous portion would cover all but the last 0.6 inches.) Humans are not adapted to live in modern society; we’re adapted to live in indigenous society, which means our instincts and ways of thinking are largely still those of an indigenous people. We’ve just been transplanted to a radically different ecosystem.

One of the central elements of indigenous life is the tribe: the 20–80 people we lived with, worked with, ate with, and died with. This tribe was what enabled us to survive — without our tribe, individual humans are weak and vulnerable compared to the rest of nature. With a tribe, we are the most powerful living things on the planet. So whether we are part of a tribe, and whether we are physically with our tribe, are two of the most important considerations in our brain.

And in modern life, we don’t have a tribe. Most of us live alone or in nuclear families; the closest we probably get to being in a tribe is our college years, where we’re constantly surrounded by our friends, and that’s probably a big part of the reason people remember those as the “best years of their life.” After college, the next best thing is often our co-workers, but that’s always a mess because we have to be “professional” and can rarely open up and relax the way we can with our friends. So most of us make do by being polite and sociable at work, and then driving or flying around the world to visit with our real friends (often the ones from childhood and college.) We are, in essence, trying to piece together a tribe that fulfills us, responding to our paleolithic instincts.

The trouble is, we almost never actually succeed in creating such a tribe. The substitute we cobble together is almost always a patchwork of relationships, people we see a few times a week or maybe even a few times a year — a far cry from spending nearly every moment of our lives with 40 of our best friends and closest relatives.

So we’re not actually part of a tribe, and according to our paleolithic brain, that means we’re constantly in danger. Since the tribe is what makes us safe and keeps us alive, when we don’t have that tribe, we’re on our own, vulnerable, at risk. Small wonder that our brain responds with feelings of anxiety.

So that’s the anxiety hypothesis. The question I have, that at least to me is more interesting, is this: given that I feel anxious, what should I do about it?

The obvious answer, from the traditional view, is to build up our network of family and friends, and — here’s the key — to make sure that they’re connected to each other. That’s what makes a tribe; it’s not the one-to-one relationships, but the many-to-many relationships — a dense supporting network of dozens of people who all know and support one another.

Which is one solution, and by and large, it works pretty well. And yet, without any grounding in science or academic literature, I believe there is another possibility.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there is more to humans than our evolutionary past; that along with our past, we also have a future, and that future has just as much to do with shaping who we are as our past. And our future, I believe, is to be agents of creation. To make discoveries, to build extraordinary things, to push the edges of what is possible in the universe.

Which is the opportunity given to modern humans. Without reverting to a tribal society, we’re never going to completely reconstruct the tribes that our deep brain desires. But what we do have is greater opportunity to create than at any previous time in history — more tools, more time, more knowledge, more infrastructure. There’s something extraordinary about losing onself in the creative process, something almost other-worldly — daily considerations and worries and insecurities melt away, and all there is in front of us is that one challenge, that one vision, that one chance to conjure something out of nothing.

And, at least for me, when I’m in the midst of it I forget all thoughts of anxiety. I wonder if that’s why there’s ofter a correlation between great artists and anxiety — creating is hard work, and to really commit your life to it, it helps to be driven to it. If it offers relief from the worry and anxiety, which may be enough of an incentive to pick up the pen or paintbrush even if it’s hard, even if no one likes your work, even if you don’t think it’s very good. And that may be what pushes many artists through the 10,000 hours they need to create something extraordinary.

I’m not saying that we should all try to make ourselves anxious so we can be great artists. But I am saying that I would prefer to not be anxious, and for the people around me to not be anxious, either. And I would also like to live in a world where people are creating extraordinary things, things that move humanity forward. So, anxiety is no fun, by itself; but it may also be the catalyst to creation, and to building up our networks of friendships. And in that light, it may be something not to fear, but to embrace.

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