“Tribe” and the Dangers of Individualism

The book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, is about mental health, and about community. Having worked as a war reporter in Afghanistan himself, the author explores the reasons why vets, war journalists, and peace corps volunteers find it so difficult to assimilate back into American society. He argues that modern life has become so socially isolating, that soldiers and others who experience periods of conflict or hardship often end up missing the war because of the intense social bonds it creates. Soldiers come home to a society so fractured by differences in race, political views, social status, etc. that they can’t understand why they fought for it in the first place. Due to the lack of social and community support, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have become much bigger problems than they need to be.

In our modern society today, we tend to value individualism over community solidarity. For the most part we strive to be financially independent consumers, and when there’s a crisis or people need help, we leave it up to a centralized authority instead of getting personally involved. Dependency on something or someone (financially or otherwise) feels vulnerable, so we prefer the freedom to support ourselves, spend time and money however we like, and move around without being tied down. I’m definitely no exception, with my own dreams of traveling the world — but it’s important to realize that individualism might come at a price. Especially when traveling, we can spend entire days without encountering anyone we know, and we often limit our meaningful interactions to a very small group of friends and family. It’s easy to feel like we’re not necessary to our community, because we’re really not.

Compare this to life on the battlefield, or in a war-torn country. In these situations, people become part of a “community of sufferers,” working together towards a common goal. Class differences disappear, and all that matters is the sacrifices each individual is willing to make for the group. As an example, Junger discusses the London Blitz during World War II, where urban dwellers were forced to live in bomb shelters with complete strangers. Instead of causing widespread panic as expected, cases of mental health disorders actually dropped dramatically. Humans like to feel necessary, and war gives us a very clear sense of purpose. It’s actually the most affluent and peaceful countries in North America and Europe that have the highest rates of suicide and depression.

Modern life also stands in stark contrast to our evolutionary past, and the extant tribal societies that most closely resemble how humans lived for millions of years. Humans would have had very little time alone, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we’re genetically adapted to communal life. Our brains reward us with the feel-good hormone oxytocin when we help others, for example. People who could get along and contribute to the group would have had an evolutionary advantage, as sharing and cooperation would have been crucial for hunting and defense.

One thing Junger does not go into is how to create supportive, purposeful groups at home to ensure we stay mentally healthy. Churches have traditionally filled this void, offering a shared set of values and giving back to the community, but what if you’re not religious? The best solution I’ve found lies in group fitness and sports… and getting your gym or team to organize fundraisers, race in charity fun runs, or volunteer.

Isn’t COMMUNITY exactly why CrossFit and November Project have become so popular? We feel good when we’re working with a team towards a common goal, even if (or especially if) that means pushing ourselves to our physical limits. The key is to focus not just on self-improvement (your own personal fitness), but on the improvement and success of others. Self-improvement — so popular among fitness and health enthusiasts — is maybe the epitome of individualism. And it’s great up to a point. But what if instead we commit to helping EACH OTHER improve — to get stronger, fitter, happier, more resilient, more connected? I think we’ll all be better off for it.