Authenticity in exhaustion

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When do you feel like your most genuine self?

During moments of praise or celebration? After achieving a victory, beating a fierce opponent? In the wake of reaching a long-standing goal? While experiencing an insight or stumbling upon a link between seemingly unconnected events?

Or, do you feel most authentic when you have reached your limits — when you have nothing else to give?

The man pictured above may be uniquely qualified to provide an answer, one that could reveal a fundamental (yet often ignored) truth about the human experience. And his answer might change the way you think about the relationship between the intelligence of your mind, and the wisdom of your body.

More than three weeks ago I listened to podcast host Rich Roll’s interview with former water polo player Ross Edgley (above), a 33-year-old British phenom known for extra-ordinary athletic feats. For example, he has…

  • run a marathon while towing a Mini Cooper
  • rope-climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest in 24 hours
  • swum 100 kilometers in the Caribbean while dragging a 100-pound tree stump

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Google his name, and you’ll find more photographic evidence. The man’s accomplishments are incredible. And as you can see, he looks like a cross between a Navy SEAL and a magazine cover model.

But you would never assume Edgley’s unfathomable physical determination and athletic prowess by listening to his cheerful banter, which features a disarming English accent. His laugh-punctuated delivery and self-deprecating humor make him sound like a twenty-something sociology major living on his own for the first time in a London flat.

During Edgley’s conversation with Rich Roll, the Brit recounts his experience swimming around mainland England — a distance of over 3,200 kilometers (more than 1,700 miles) — in 157 days. During the nearly six-month journey, he never once stepped foot onto land. The closest he got to terra firma was the boat he slept on for six hours at a stretch before he got back out into the Atlantic’s frigid waters. This incomparable event was known as the Great British Swim.

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Rich Roll’s full podcast interview is available at “Ross Edgley is the Real Aquaman — Lessons in Fortitude From (Arguably) the Fittest Man Alive.” Even if you are not into swimming or endurance sports, what Edgley accomplished — and the struggles he faced while doing so — will blow your mind. He voluntarily subjected himself to unbelievable hardships, and he shares the insights he gleaned from those obstacles in his conversation.

Perhaps the most powerful remark from the cheerfully-boyish Englishman is the one that Rich Roll, who is himself an ultra-endurance triathlete and former Stanford swimmer, featured in the podcast’s promotional image:

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This is the line that — more than three weeks after listening to the full two-hour conversation — continues to reverberate in my head.

“You find the most honest version of yourself in complete exhaustion.” 

Every time I consider these words I acknowledge the wisdom that they contain. As more and more of us are spending our days seated at the office, riding elevators instead of taking the stairs, and stopping the car at the mailbox rather than walking to the curb, true physical exhaustion is almost never encountered.

Yes, many of us do work ourselves into stupors while leaning toward computer monitors for hours on end. And many of us do run ourselves ragged chauffeuring the kids to six different after-school activities every week. And many of us do frantically tackle every imaginable task in order to climb one rung higher on the corporate or organizational ladder. In these efforts, however, we become weary out of wear.

What about exhaustion caused by physical exertion for the sake of exercise? Or transportation (e.g. walking or bicycling)? Or gardening? Or the sheer joy of movement found in climbing a tree, navigating a playground, or scrambling up a steep hillside to catch a sunset? 

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Far too few of us experience the pleasurable fatigue of a body testing its limits, however modest those current limits might be.  

I don’t believe that a person needs to resemble Ross Edgley to benefit from the clarity of mind, sharpness of focus, and renewal of the spirit that complete exhaustion can yield. As a recreational runner — and a very slow one, at that — I regularly shuffle through one-hour workouts and feel physically depleted. But I also feel remarkably calm, centered, and capable. My senses of sight, touch, and smell become acutely sharp, and I am aware of subtle shifts in wind speed, humidity, and temperature.

Somewhere along my normal route, which features a long stretch of rail-to-trail hard-pack, my mind releases the worries that were churning when I laced up my running shoes. I’ll likely return to those stresses later, but during the slow cool-down walk to my apartment door I revel in the steady insistence of my breath and the reassuring prominence of my heartbeat. My limbs are tired, but also fluid and responsive.

The moments when I feel the most authentic — the most me — occur when I am physically spent. And maybe that is where we all can find our truest selves.

You don’t need to be Ross Edgley to do this, however.

  • Rather than tow a Mini Cooper through a marathon, what if you briskly towed your kids in a wagon for 26.2 minutes?
  • Rather than rope-climb the equivalent of Mount Everest, what if you climbed the stairs to your office every day next week?
  • Rather than swim 100 kilometers while dragging a tree stump, what if you swam several lengths of the local pool while pulling your doubts through the water?

In these efforts that exhaust the body, you just might find who you really are.

Instead of working yourself under, what if you worked your body out?

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For more about Rich Roll (pictured below), please see these blog posts:

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Note — The image of the map of the Great British Swim and the photographs of Ross Edgley were obtained from redbull.com. The only exception is the one of Edgley towing the Mini Cooper, which was located on the website of Littlegate Publishing. The publicity image for Edgley’s appearance on the Rich Roll Podcast (RRP) and the photo of Rich Roll were obtained from richroll.com. The photograph of the sunset was taken in Longmont, Colorado by the author of this blog post.

Suicide, and the inadequacy of language

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The following was originally shared as a Facebook post on Sunday, December 16, 2018.


As a long-time Michigan resident, I am deeply saddened by the loss of Jessica Starr. As an English teacher, I am also remorseful for the seeming inadequacy of language to address the manner of her passing: suicide. This limitation is very troubling.

The word suicide can strike such fear, grief, and discomfort in us that we do not even want to *consider* discussing the concept of taking one’s own life – and, nearly as important, the painful circumstances that precede that dire decision. Few words carry such terrible weight.

I am not a psychologist, nor a physician. But as a human being, I believe that greater awareness about suicide needs to be spread. That understanding begins with conversations — ones that necessitate vulnerability. Therefore, they are not easy. So too often, I fear, they are avoided in favor of less-sensitive topics.

Since learning of Ms. Starr’s passing Thursday morning, I have been wondering if I should say anything about her loss. In the wake of such a tragedy, demonstrating respect and remembrance are essential. As the days have passed and I have read stories about her life, my resolve to express “something” has built. That something is this post.

Our current language around suicide is insufficient; the dialogue is often too infrequent, and too clinical. A change is needed. If you are a Lake Orion resident, and you feel similarly, please feel free to reach out to me – or to share any comments and/or ideas below. I want to get a conversation started. Thank you.

Respectfully,
Brian

Postscript — If my words have caused any unintended offense and/or exceeded my good judgment, then I humbly apologize. They are meant to, in some small way, honor Jessica Starr’s life and legacy.


Note – The image featured above is the official headshot of Jessica Starr (1983-2018), and I obtained it from her bio on the Fox 2 Detroit website.

“Alexa, Should We Trust You?”

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Whether or not your home contains one of the so-called “smart speakers,” I encourage you to spend 15 minutes with the cover story of The Atlantic’s November 2018 issue. Judith Shulevitz’s “Alexa, Should We Trust you?” serves as a captivating look at the present state of voice-activated virtual assistants and an evenly-weighted consideration of the future of devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod.  (Full disclosure: I do not own any of these technologies, but I have seen several in operation in friends’ households.)

Before I share a few more comments about the article, it is useful to identify the distinctions between the pieces of hardware that may be sitting on your kitchen counter or bedroom dresser and the web-connected digital assistants that these gadgets allow users to interact with. The most popular line of smart speakers is the Amazon Echo, which — as of 2018 — 31 million U.S. users have plugged into a socket. The Echo hosts the upbeat female voice of Alexa. The bulk of Shulevitz’s article examines the relationship between human users and this admittedly robotic yet eerily articulate domestic oracle.

Less popular than the Echo/Alexa pairing — at least as measured by units sold — is the combination offered by Google, the search engine titan that powers 90% of web inquiries. Google’s devices, which number roughly 14 million active units in the United States, are identified as the Home series. The web-connected medium that they channel is the Google Assistant. Lastly, one of the most recent entries into the smart speaker market is the Apple HomePod. This cute, bulbous device lets users interact with Siri, the virtual assistant that many iPhone owners are familiar with.

With definitions out of the way, let’s move on to a few teasers in the hopes that you make time to read this worthy piece. The article’s introduction features some noteworthy statistics, namely that 8 million Americans own three or more smart speakers (i.e. that multiple devices are found in their homes) and that by the year 2021 estimates suggest that there will be nearly as many smart speakers in operation as the number of people on earth. That’s a stunning amount of domestic tech with ears eager to hear what we are up to. As Shulevitz notes, “They [the device manufacturers] want to colonize space. Not interplanetary space. Everyday space: home, car, office.”

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And the fact that digital assistants like Alexa are constantly waiting for our input is one of the reasons that trust is a central theme that runs through the psychological aspects of human-computer interaction that Shulevitz explores. Users are, after all, not conversing with an entity located next to the kitchen sink; rather, they are speaking to a voice-recognition system whose computing “brain” is housed in gigantic server farms humming inside warehouses far from our homes. In reality, devices like the Amazon Echo serve as portals. Our words pass through them even though it feels like we are speaking with them.

When we employ the “wake word” that cues Alexa or Siri to pay attention, it prompts a system that inhabits a sprawling climate-controlled facility. Our queries about everything from the weather in Miami to the number of Ted Bundy’s victims are then tallied, analyzed, and categorized by the algorithm-infused AI infrastructure. These vast digital networks dispassionately learn everything they can about our likes, dislikes, and curiosities with the ultimate goals of (1) being able to predict what we might next desire, and (2) establishing metrics about how we — and others like us, based on demographics — think and behave. We are entrusting our personal data to Big Tech, and those firms are hungry to harvest it.

Although sharing information online is certainly not a new concept, especially given the billions of people worldwide who use Facebook and other social media platforms, the trust dynamic shifts when the devices we are interacting with can talk intelligently with us. When prompted by a seemingly humane entity, humans can be persuaded to divulge intimate questions and confessions. Large technology companies possess the power — and, in many cases, the incentive — to sell the fruits that grow from these sensitive topics to bidders who want to market products, services, and lifestyle aspirations to us. Consider this potentially unnerving fact from the article: if a web-connected Roomba sweeps crumbs and dog hair from your linoleum, then its manufacturer (iRobot) owns a partial floor-plan of your residence and knowledge of where your furniture is located. (!)

If the preceding paragraph suggests that The Atlantic’s cover story serves as an ominous deep-dive into the dark intentions of Silicon Valley, that would be inaccurate. Instead, the article is far more about our human nature and what our willingness (and desire) to direct questions to small devices that possess a voice — but no eyes, face, or conscience — means about our curiosities and vulnerabilities. We seek to be informed. And we don’t want to be lonely. Increasingly, it appears that we are willing to ask Alexa for assistance with both. What does it suggest about the human condition if we are more comfortable telling the black soup-can-like pod on the windowsill that we are feeling down than we are picking up the phone and discussing that same sadness with a friend?

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Judith Shulevitz writes that, “We’ve been reacting to human vocalizations for millions of years as if they signaled human proximity.” And until now, they have. But today, in houses around the world, there are children, teens, and adults holding conversations with voices whose convenient accessibility and lack of moral judgement signal not a human proximity, but the nearness of a tantalizingly powerful amalgamation of trillions of data points arranged in the silhouette of a human form.

That form provides correct answers — at least, in many cases — but can it yield the right answers? And what does it mean if we believe that it can? It is the latter question that I think needs to be carefully considered. Are we nearing a cultural tipping point where humanity deems it desirable to not only request objective clarification from virtual assistants (e.g. “Alexa, how many acres can fit in a square mile?”) but also preferable to seek understanding or comfort from their AI brains (e.g. “Alexa, why am I struggling to make friends at my new school?”) instead of from fellow human beings?

By assessing one outcome of the quickening pace of technology advancement — and, in doing so, identifying a potentially alarming reality — Shulevitz remarks: “The line between artificial voices and real ones is on its way to disappearing.” If (or when) this distinction is fully realized, what will occur to the perceived value of face-to-face interactions? If discussing difficult subjects with a faceless digital assistant becomes good enough — or even better than talking to one’s closest confidants — will humanity have taken a step forward in sync with technology, or a step backward from genuine intimacy? Please, do not delay another minute. Follow this link to The Atlantic’s full article. You’ll be glad you did. Trust me.

Note — The images in this post, which were created by acclaimed illustrator Roberto Parada, are featured in The Atlantic’s on-line article and its November 2018 print edition.

Habits — with author James Clear

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This afternoon I finished listening to Rich Roll’s interview with entrepreneur and author James Clear, and I was impressed. Actually, I was surprised and impressed. So much so that I am recommending the podcast — which is available in video form on YouTube here — because I believe it will be worth your time if you are trying to either establish good habits or break bad ones.

A regular follower of Rich Roll’s weekly podcast, I listened to a preview of his interview with James Clear last week. It was there that I learned that Clear was being featured as an expert on the topic of habits. Never having heard of the man, I searched the web for details about his education but could find nothing — no evidence of a Ph.D., university affiliation, or history of peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Having read enough books about psychology to know that it is not a field where one can make casual claims, I was suspicious of Clear’s authority on the subject of behavior change. My suspicions deepened when I learned that his new (and only) book is entitled Atomic Habits (2018).

As an English teacher, I can’t imagine any relationship between the words atomic and habits that seems reasonable. After all, atomic most frequently precedes either bombs or energy. And habits seem to have nothing to do with cataclysmic warheads or slamming tiny particles together to produce usable energy. Why didn’t James Clear choose a more authoritative — or at least serious — adjective for his first book? Like strategic or formidable or purpose-driven. Even Life-changing Habits would suggest content that is substantive rather than sensational.

For me, Atomic Habits sounds like a title that a motivational speaker would sell — not an educated investigator who had spent years delving into the science behind motivation, decision making, and cognitive processing. And in order to take Rich Roll’s interview seriously, I was really hoping for the latter. That’s what I thought before I started listening several days ago. Thankfully, I learned that my doubts were largely (though not entirely*) unfounded.

Yes, the title of James Clear’s book still feels like an odd choice. But the man who wrote it seems legitimate even though he has not earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Clear has a passion for understanding the human condition, and he appears to have done his homework. In fact, only several minutes into the interview he references author Charles Duhigg, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Before Duhigg transitioned into long-form non-fiction, he was a respected reporter for the New York Times. In 2012 he wrote The Power of Habit, a brilliant behavioral analysis that features over 60 pages of source notes. As an investigator and a writer, Duhigg is The Real Deal. I highly recommend his book, which I own and have read thoroughly. That’s my stack of hand-written notes next to it.

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Anyway, Rich Roll’s interview with James Clear is very engaging; I learned a number of strategies and perspectives (ways of thinking differently, you might say) that I can immediately implement to encourage the formation of better habits and begin the disassembly of poor ones. For instance, Clear advocates rehearsing the first two minutes of any behavior that you’d like to become a routine. How can two minutes possibly make a meaningful difference? Consider the following example:

Let’s say you’d like to improve your health by taking several 30-minute walks each week. In order to engage in this low-impact exercise, you must first put on the proper socks and shoes, grab your keys, put on your jacket, and walk out the door. Clear asserts that if you move methodically through that two-minute routine several times each week — from opening your sock drawer to locking the front door behind you — that you will ingrain the habit of setting off with intention. Remember: if you won’t step out onto the porch, you can’t take a long walk. Therefore, the most important part of this fledgling habit is arguably its first two minutes.

Obviously, you can’t return to the warm comforts of your family room after this two-minute scenario and expect to see any health gains. So on several of those evenings you continue beyond the two minutes and complete your 30-minute walk. As a consequence of this sustained effort, positive health results will slowly begin manifesting. Meanwhile, the two-minute rehearsals that occur on the evenings that do not extend to the half-hour walk will add value because they perpetuate the habit of getting you out the door. And Clear believes that what prevents most people from establishing positive habits is that they don’t have the discipline to simply begin the process.

Having not read (or even seen firsthand) Clear’s book, I remain cautious in my endorsement of his scholarship. That is why the asterisk* appears in the fourth paragraph. But I am confident in recommending Rich Roll’s interview with this first-time author. Their conversation is very engaging, and I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the insights that Clear offers as well as most of the well-reasoned answers that he provides to Roll’s questions. Consider giving it a listen, or watching it on YouTube.  Links are featured above. And if you choose to read Atomic Habits, please let me know your thoughts!

Note — The image at the beginning of this post was obtained from Rich Roll’s website.

Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” is here!

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The latest book by renowned social worker Brené Brown is now available. Dare to Lead, which is the sixth title published by the respected University of Houston researcher and ground-breaking TED speaker, is likely to receive both scholarly and popular praise.

Brené-Brown-approved2-photo-by-Maile-WilsonDr. Brown, who is the author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers, has pioneered a new understanding of the roles of vulnerability and shame in the human condition. Her writing — which draws on decades of research largely conducted via personal interviews — has positively impacted thousands of readers from all walks of life.

Please see Brene Brown’s website for more details about Dare to Lead. It is sure to be an informative and inspiring read, especially for those interested in the culture of leadership that exists at their workplace, church, non-profit, or community organization. Amazon reviews of the book can be found here.

Note — The images featured in this post were obtained from Brené Brown’s website.

“Always On” Work Culture

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On Friday, October 5, 2018 the Wall Street Journal published an online article entitled “How to Disconnect from ‘Always On’ Work Culture.” The following day the same piece appeared in the WSJ’s weekend print edition (Saturday/Sunday, October 6-7, 2018) with the title “Far From The Madding Co-Workers.” Its author, Matthew Kitchen, is the newspaper’s “Off-Duty Gear & Gadgets” editor.

Judging by the writer’s curious job title, I should have lowered my hopes for the article that graced section D’s front page beneath a captivating illustration by artist Steve Scott. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I dove into the first column like a social scientist expecting the latest research results from universities in Helsinki, Tokyo, or London mixed with insightful analysis about the status of blue-collar and white-collar workers. Unfortunately, though the article features some telling social commentary, that content feels overshadowed by the tech recommendations that Kitchen shares to better handle the onslaught of electronic requests from bosses and colleagues. Bummer.

In my eyes, a promising opportunity to explore a problematic element of  Western work-life — our inability to detach from the office — was not fully realized. Rather, the topic’s critical mass was mostly skirted in favor of a half-dozen suggestions for apps (the ubiquotous moniker which causes techies and non-techies alike to squeal with delight) that could be used to slow the rush of work-related e-mail and texts. Given Kitchen’s “Gear & Gadgets” job title, however, I understand that his approach to this article is entirely reasonable. He is, after all, the WSJ’s tech guy. But I can’t help but ask this question: When are we going to get serious about the fact that the intrusions of our “always on” career focus are created because the cultural mindset around work — and not so much the technology that the office embraces — is the issue that needs unpacking?

Sadly, the idea of getting serious is thrown half-way out the proverbial window when Kitchen opens his piece with this sentence: “I have a masochistic need to please bosses, so I’m never more than a few feet from my iPhone (notifications humming at all hours) and I never leave home without a MacBook in tow” (page D1). In terms of setting the tone, this sentence suggests that what is to follow is not going to be an evenly-balanced assessment of how the desire for career stability (and/or advancement) is complicating the need for work-life balance, familial intimacy, and long-term personal sanity. Rather, the author seems to be letting readers know that he isn’t going to tread very far from his charging cords and touch screens.

Kitchen tosses another wrench in the works when he remarks in the second paragraph that he is a millennial. While I understand his desire to be forthcoming about his age bracket (and thereby imply that he possesses an inherent affinity for digital technology) I find it troubling that he does not follow this statement with a caveat. And that caveat would be that even though millennials have been accused of being self-centered, entitled, and virtually addicted to technology because of their status as “digital natives,” they have also been shown to be remarkably astute social and cultural critics. Respected men and women from the Greatest Generation have given millennials their due credit, praising their cultural consciousness, awareness of civil rights conflicts around the globe, and desire to confront injustice in nearly all areas of commerce and social welfare.

Isn’t the infiltration of work-related communication into time that should be dedicated to child-rearing or bonding with one’s spouse a form of injustice? The middle of Kitchen’s article seems to indicate that it is, as he cites research from several studies and entertains thoughts of altering his own “masochistic need” to hover over his devices at all hours. But in the article’s conclusion he provides — in a non-humorous attempt at being humorous — that he is about to share “the ultimate key to work-life balance” except  “actually wait. Can you hold on a second? I gotta take this” (page D11). I find this conclusion to not only be a largely failed attempt a cleverness, but a sad comment about the importance of critically examining how educated adults are voluntarily letting work-related requests (and/or demands) run rampant over time that should be spent with friends and family — or even with just oneself.

This criticism aside, the article features some valuable research results as well as warnings about the negative impacts of our Pavlovian response to smartphone alerts. Consider these findings, which I am producing verbatim:

  • “According to a 2016 study by the Academy of Management, employees tally an average of 8 hours a week answering work-related emails after leaving the office.”
  • “[A] Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association found that 30% of men and 23% of women regularly bring work home.”

Offsetting these depressing (yet certainly not surprising) research results are the following developments that foster hope that we can curtail the invasion of work into our personal lives:

  • “In 2017, France instituted a new labor law that supports a new frontier in human rights, the ‘Right to Disconnect.'”
  • “Similar rights have been extended in Italy and the Philippines, are being explored in Germany and Luxembourg and were proposed in New York City.” (Note — Given NYC’s failed attempt at limiting the sizes of soft-drink containers in 2013-2014, I have doubts as to whether this new and certainly worthy initiative will find traction.)

I will not hide my disappointment with the fact that my hopes were unrealized, but I do credit Kitchen for acknowledging the subject. The Wall Street Journal should also be recognized for deeming this article relevant enough to place it on section D’s first page. Granted, section A would have been ideal. But I admit that it is very difficult to criticize digital technologies in 2018 — a time when they add tremendous value to our lives — without fear of being labeled a luddite. I simply wish a greater discourse was occurring around when, where, and how we employ these technologies. When left unchecked, use can turn quickly to abuse. We owe it to ourselves — and to our relationships with family, friends, and fellow community members — to talk (and write) more candidly about always on work culture.

TRIBE, by Sebastian Junger

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“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.