How many people on your street are you friends with? For the majority of Americans, it’s zero. It’s no surprise that community is lacking in the United States, but its causes and effects are broader-reaching than simply not knowing your neighbor’s name.
Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, addresses the lack of communal belonging existing today in Western culture. He draws connections between the prevalence of mental illness throughout the past several hundred years and compares them to the strength of community formed within a culture.
This lack of communal belonging isn’t a new development of Western culture. Even in 1700s America, it was not uncommon to have white people run off to live with the American Indians, jaded by their lives in settlements. However, it was incredibly rare for the reverse to happen: oddly, American Indians seemed very content with their culture, but White Americans did not. Even when American Indians kidnapped White Americans as part of guerilla warfare, these kidnapped individuals sometimes did not want to return back to their White culture.
This development was particularly vexing to settlers, who had considered their civilization technologically, and therefore morally, superior. Junger hypothesizes that this was likely due to a strong communal nature of settlements that gave individuals greater control over their lives and established a tight connection with a small group of people. Indian tribes were often much smaller than settlements, and the power structures of societies was extremely flat. Group rituals and ceremonies were common. Conversely, white settlements were strictly hierarchical and community building was often very limited due to specialization. These ideas continue to hold true today, where highly complex communities often lack a unified community. People who left to live in American Indian communities were reporting as feeling greater degrees of fulfillment even without the niceties of modern technology.
A strong sense of community isn’t just useful to prevent desertion — the benefits extend to better overall long-term mental health. Unintuitively, those in active war settings often show a drop in mental illness. Civilians in England during the air raids in World War II were noted as being much less likely to check into a hospital for mental health related issues, and surveyed communities often noted an increase in fulfillment and community. Soldiers returning home to a country where civilians were actively involved in war were much less likely to report issues with long-term mental illness.
Junger hypothesizes that one reason why American veterans have long-lasting issues with mental illness is the inability of people in American communities to empathize with soldiers and provide support. In countries where being in the army is mandatory for youth, these issues are uncommon. These communities harbor a shared empathy for an experience that all young people go through.
What caught me most off-guard in Tribe was how the humans crave community over stability. Junger recounts his experiences in Bosnia during its civil war. Being a civilian during this time was extremely dangerous, and those staying in the country formed tight groups. When speaking about their experiences today, they often recount them positively. Though these individuals might have gained stability in their lives, they do mention how the loss of community sometimes made them wish they could go back.
America is often heralded as a melting pot of cultures — however, I think what I see in the world today better resembles a tossed salad, with small communities that don’t mesh together. Until we melt together, we’ll continue to face the increasingly relevant problems of isolation, mental illness, and no community.