TRIBE, by Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger

“What people miss [about combat] presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation” (p. 92-93).


It’s been over a week since I finished Sebastian Junger’s TRIBE (2016), a slender work of non-fiction by the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, War, and Fire. Since completing this quick read, I have found myself repeatedly glancing at its matte black cover and feeling drawn uncomfortably to its title — the word TRIBE. For nearly ten days something has bothered me about it. Not until this afternoon, while copying passages from the book onto a yellow legal pad, did I finally determine why the title provokes me. Its typeface features a camouflage pattern. On the surface, this is fitting. But symbolically, the camouflage is indicative of a troubling fact about our society.

For a book that often refers to military service in order to explore the differences between tribal societies and modern Western culture, the use of camouflage is ideal. After all, the external face of the U.S. military – especially the Army and Marines – mixes olive drab, dark brown, chocolate, and greenish-yellow. Thus the camouflage typeface is not only appropriate in its connection to soldiers’ fatigues, but it appeals to shoppers whose passing gaze may fancy the green-brown-yellow pattern that adorns everything from women’s yoga pants to pre-teens’ school backpacks. Camouflage is cool.

But this afternoon I realized why the pattern has been nagging me. I value Junger’s use of military references to help readers understand the distinctions between tribal societies (both historical and contemporary) and modern Western culture. But it dawned on me today that it is the purpose of camouflage that has been provoking my discomfort; camouflage helps its host disappear. Drawing on influences from the natural world, humans have disguised their appearance for well over a hundred years through the use of specially-crafted garb. The goal of such clothing is to blend in to one’s surroundings, to become invisible against the background.

Understandably, on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, soldiers want to achieve invisibility. If you can’t be seen, it’s much less likely that you will be shot or bombed. But when soldiers return from duty and re-enter civilian life, what occurs if they are still camouflaged? Not from face-paint or jungle fatigues, but from the fact that most civilians in modern Western culture are at least partially – and in many cases largely — invisible inside their communities. Junger’s thesis asserts that disconnection has become widespread in the United States and western Europe, and that servicemen and women are not the only ones feeling lost. Rather, the entirety of modern Western culture is showing signs of alienation from community-centered values.

Junger believes that this disconnection, this sense of feeling invisible, is due to several causes: (1) the lack of a crisis around which people must band together in order to survive, (2) the affluence of modern society and the fact that its luxuries are prized when they are amassed instead of shared, and (3) the belief that success has become a solo effort, not one measured by improvements in group health and welfare. He writes: “Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit” (p. 93). These are heavy words.

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Much of the work’s 136 pages features a fascinating historical analysis of why our human spirit has been eroding over the last several centuries. The first quarter of the book documents stories from the American frontier, a time during which a striking number of European settlers found more appealing living conditions with Native American cultures than they did with the colonies that they were, by nationality, a part of. As a result, both men and women migrated from colonies to tribal encampments. And even when rescue parties were sent out to bring these individuals home, they often resisted; in fact, more than a few hid from their rescuers. For those who left the colonies to join tribal life, the tight bonds of Native American cultures were more reassuring than what they were experiencing in “civilized” settlements on the east coast.

For the remaining chapters, the author turns toward World Wars I and II, conflicts during which the need to band together (as both civilian communities and military units) witnessed dramatic decreases in people’s self-reported depression, anxiety, and stress.  Because the members of those populations joined together for a common cause, they formed connections with strangers. They focused on others instead of themselves because their well-being (if not their survival) could be ensured only if the group remained viable. One of the most powerful examples that the book features is the well-documented phenomena that manifested in London during the Blitz. Despite weeks of brutal aerial bombardments by the German Luftwaffe, the citizens of London experienced a pronounced increase in spirit and emotional intimacy at the very time that their lives were most threatened. Imminent danger catalyzed relationship building.

The author writes: “What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss” (p. 66). With the exception of natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, most Americans are largely insulated from anything resembling a true catastrophe. Although global warming, poverty, and discrimination are very pressing problems, they do not possess the commanding immediacy of an invasion by a foreign army, the outbreak of a communicable disease, or a power outage that puts half of the nation in the dark. Consequently, we rarely depend on others. This results in a situation where Junger writes: “A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone” (p. 18).

Supporting Junger’s argument are interviews with scholars and social scientists, who attest to the strengths of tribal cultures. These experts also provide sobering commentary about the ways in which modern society is falling far short of upholding the values that more primitive cultures maintain through their reliance on group dynamics. In response to Junger sharing some of his observations with anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz and asking her how suitable they are to disclose to readers, she responds this way: “You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an antihuman society” (p. 93). She continues by saying that, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that” (p. 94).

My only regret about TRIBES is that it is not twice as long. In my estimation, Junger has just scratched the surface on this provocative subject. Whether you are interested in Colonial American history, the impact of PTSD on servicemen and women, the dynamics of fraud and greed in the financial sector, or the health of your suburban neighborhood, I recommend investing a few hours in Sebastian Junger’s book. It is a quick read, but its content will stick with you. And after considering the author’s observations, you may understand why camouflage is both a blessing and a curse. Invisibility is beneficial on the battlefield, but it harms everyone — soldiers and civilians alike — back home.


Interested in learning more?  

  • Sebastian Junger’s TED talks are worth your time. Here is a link to his most recent one, a presentation recorded in May 2016 entitled Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war.
  • Sebastian Junger’s film Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is riveting.

Note — The images contained in this post were obtained from Sebastian Junger’s website and Unsplash.com.

Finding Ultra, by Rich Roll

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Perhaps no other contemporary memoir has shaped my life — in behavior, in attitude, in understanding — as much as Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra. I originally experienced the book by shuttling a series of CDs in and out of my car’s stereo during an 11-hour road trip to Asheville, NC in April of 2014. From the first disc, I was hooked.

Finding Ultra, originally published in 2012, documents the life of a now 50-something attorney-turned-triathlete who transformed his life after grappling with the alcoholism that plunged his twenties into a blur of blackouts and the fast-food habit that took alcoholism’s place in his thirties. From the ages of 38 to 48, he immersed himself in nothing short of a metamorphosis.

I find Roll’s story compelling for several reasons:

First, he readily admits that he is still doing the necessary internal work to maintain his sobriety and to make healthy lifestyle choices daily.

Second, his professional focus relies on service; he works as an advocate for exercise, healthy eating, the environment, and proper mental self-care because he believes that only by meeting others’ needs can he find purpose in his career.

Third, his rallying cry has become a mantra for admirers from many walks of life. He wants us to “uncover, unlock, and unleash our genuine, most authentic selves.” In other words, Roll desires that we realize our fullest potential and honor our uniqueness in the process.

Journaling played a part in Roll’s transformation, and it continues to serve him as a vehicle for introspection and creative expression.  In the revised edition of Finding Ultra (2018), he explains that he rises early and then “devote[s] some precious morning time to quiet reflection – meditation followed by journaling” (p. 224).  As the day dawns, he takes what bubbles to the top of his mind and “before that enthusiasm wanes, capture[s] it on the page. Because pen and paper hold magical powers. It makes it real.” He encourages readers to “build on that entry daily.”

For Roll, who believes that we can veer off-track when we repeat inaccurate stories (to ourselves) of what our past was like, time spent with the journal “hold[s] the power to change this story we tell ourselves about ourselves” [emphasis is my own] (p. 236). He continues by asserting that “the job begins with understanding that certain past events or memories only have the power you allow them to have” (p. 237). Those troubling past moments he refers to as “knots.”

Roll’s prescription is this:

“At the top of each page, write down one of those pesky knots. Underneath each, explain how this aspect of your identity undermines your sense of self and impedes your growth. Then spend time ruminating on the knot’s validity. It’s hard, but do your best to be as objective as possible. Broaden your aperture. Dig deep. Go way back. And don’t rush it. Every time you stumble upon a memory or experience that contradicts the veracity of that knot, write it down. Build on that list, until its falsity is undeniable” (p. 238).

How does Rich Roll actually perform this part of his morning routine?

“[O]n the page. But never the keyboard. Writing longhand forces me to slow down. And somehow (again), it makes it more real. More potent. Sometimes it’s just ten minutes spent jotting down random thoughts. An idea for a blog post. A podcast guest I’d like to book. An emotion I am struggling with. A list of things I am grateful for” (pages 240-241).

If you are interested in learning more about Rich Roll, I highly recommend his podcast, which will soon eclipse 400 episodes.  I have listened to nearly every one of them since discovering the plant-powered triathlete during that road trip to Asheville, NC in 2014.

Quiet, by Susan Cain

In a category of its own, Susan Cain’s Quiet (2012) has done more to promote the understanding of introversion than any other popular work. Its blend of historical analysis and contemporary psychological and sociological research explores topics that have been traditionally ignored or pushed aside: the benefits of solitude, the challenges of shyness, the value of individual effort in education and business, and the often-overlooked creative strengths of those who are quiet. Cain’s book should be required reading for teachers, coaches, CEOs, and community leaders. I cannot recommend it more highly. My copy is filled with notes.

Additionally, Susan Cain’s TED talk, which is entitled The power of introverts, is nineteen minutes long and well worth your time.

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Option B, by Sheryl Sandburg

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After her husband of eleven years, Dave Goldberg, tragically lost his life while exercising during a vacation in 2015, Sheryl Sandberg entered a state of shock. In the wake of her husband’s unexpected passing, the successful Facebook COO felt her life unraveling. At the age of 45 she became a single mom to her two children, adopting a host of new responsibilities at home while trying to maintain her bearings at the social media giant. Sandberg found herself pulled in multiple new directions while simultaneously trying to grapple with the grief that accompanies the unexpected loss of a spouse.

Option B documents the days and months following the tragic death of Sandberg’s beloved husband. In the memoir, which she co-wrote with friend and Wharton business school psychology professor Adam Grant, Sandberg explores the trials and triumphs that defined her life during an exceptionally challenging period of loss, reconciliation, and rebuilding. Grant, whose non-fiction bestseller Originals (2016) I highly recommend, provides scientific commentary to explain the mechanisms behind Sandberg’s personal and professional struggles as she and her family strove to re-direct their lives in the disorienting wake of tragedy.

Among the strategies that Sandberg adopted to deal with her grief, uncertainty, and fear was journaling. She declares, “Journaling became a key part of my recovery” and “[it] helped me process my overwhelming feelings and my all-too-many regrets” (p. 67). Option B features a half-dozen pages on which she surveys research about the psychological impacts of journaling, and then documents the actual techniques that she used — with both a computer and a notebook — after her husband’s death. Based on her commentary, she maintains at least one of these techniques today.

Sandberg cites research by psychologist James W. Pennebaker, who found that college students who journaled about traumatic experiences for fifteen minutes a day for only four days realized better emotional and physical gains than did a control group who wrote about general (i.e. non-emotional) topics (p. 62). In the book’s endnotes she comments that “research [from a range of scholars from the past twenty years] also suggests that journaling works best when we write privately, just for ourselves, and describe facts and feelings; that men tend to benefit a bit more from journaling than women since they’re more likely to bottle up their feelings; and that people with more health problems and a history of trauma or stress show the greatest benefits” (p. 194).

In addition to citing scientific research, Sandberg also shares stories of other individuals who have used journaling to help themselves work through struggles and rebuild after hardships. One of those people is Catherine Hoke, a venture capitalist turned social justice activist and entrepreneur. After a painful divorce and an unrelated scandal that devastated Hoke’s advocacy work with adult prisoners in Texas, she entered a period of personal and professional crisis. To her surprise, writing became an outlet — and a form of salvation. Sandberg quotes Hoke as saying, “Journaling isn’t exactly meditating. But it helped me quiet myself and reflect. I was able to put words to my feelings and unpack them” (p. 62).

Putting words to feelings — and words to experiences — helps us better think about them and, hopefully, understand them and their power. Adam Grant shared two journaling techniques that Sandberg adopted and found very helpful:

  1. Write down three things that you have done well each day. These experiences do not need to be large. In fact, as Sandberg describes, her three things often seemed minor — even trivial — like making coffee or getting the kids out of bed. But, as she continues, even these tiny steps matter. They compose what psychologists refer to as “small wins,” and they add up to boost our senses of control and confidence (p. 68).
  2. Write down three experiences that provoke joy each day. Sandberg explains that “when something positive happens, I think, This will make the notebook. It’s a habit that brightens the whole day” (p. 101). She then cites studies by several scholars — including a 2004 Journal of Research in Personality article by Chad M. Burton and Laura A. King — that found that “Writing about joyful experiences for just three days can improve people’s moods and decrease their visits to health centers a full three months later” (p. 102).

Using these techniques and others, Sandberg asserts that “Journaling helped me make sense of the past and rebuild my self-confidence to navigate the present and the future” (p. 67-8). I, for one, feel the same. Journaling with consistency and a sense of purpose helps me understand confusing experiences from the past, adapt to the challenges of the present, and prepare for the necessary uncertainties of the future.