Sunday 25 September 2016

Innovative thinker on human condition and the longing to belong

FictionTribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger, Fourth Estate, hdbk, 192 pages, €18.95

Patrick Kelleher

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Experience: Sebastian Junger based a lot of his theory on what he saw during wars from the frontlines as a journalist.
Experience: Sebastian Junger based a lot of his theory on what he saw during wars from the frontlines as a journalist.
Tribe by Sebastian Junger.

Anybody who has ever suffered from a mental illness has probably given much thought to what triggered it. There are undoubtedly different causes for different people, but one factor that most don't stop to consider is that Western society may be the problem. This is what Sebastian Junger writes about in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. He argues that people in the Western world are too often alone, both physically and emotionally. The overarching message is that a more tribal society would be healthier for everybody, from war veterans experiencing PTSD to those who are suffering from depression and other mental illnesses.

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This is the wider argument that Junger presents, but Tribe is also full of varied and intuitive perspectives on modern life. Junger, a renowned war journalist, offers something extraordinary and unique here. He is concerned with the alienation that is rife in society. Why are people so disillusioned? Why are suicide rates higher in Western societies with long-reigning peace than in war-torn places across the globe? And why do diagnoses of mental-health conditions go down rather than up in natural disasters and conflicts? Junger argues that it is at least partly down to a lack of a tribal mentality. People need to feel needed. They need to be a part of something bigger than themselves to thrive. This isn't just rhetoric, either; his arguments - especially the argument concerning the banding together of people during war - are strong.

These are all things that Junger has been forced to consider in life-changing circumstances when watching war from the frontlines as a journalist. His understanding of violence and the societal disconnectedness we experience today is unique. It's a surprising breath of fresh air, even if it is occasionally harrowing reading. Perhaps one of his most interesting arguments is that living through difficult circumstances is not necessarily a bad thing.

In his introduction, Junger writes: "Humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It's time for that to end."

It's a big statement to make, but in the chapters that follow, Junger readily provides his insight with his mix of history, psychology, sociology, anthropology and personal memoir.

What sets his book apart from others is that this isn't really a study, but more an extended piece of journalism. Junger's impulse to speak to people and to understand human experience shines through on every page. He is less concerned here with citing academic studies and journal articles. He is more interested in talking to people about their experiences. It is this, among other things, that makes Tribe so fascinating. Junger's methodology may make academics squirm with discomfort, but for the average reader, it's very refreshing.

In Tribe, Junger tries to understand the human condition. He craves understanding about why so many people in peaceful Western societies are so deeply unhappy. In looking at American Indians' tribal lives, he finds that those who were captured from the settler society often wanted to stay with the tribal society because of the connectedness it offered.

People want to belong. Junger's argument is that it's time to change the way our society treats people. It needs to be more open, connected and in touch. In short, Western society could learn a few things by looking at ancient tribes and adopting some of their understandings of community.

Tribe is an extraordinary achievement. Often unsettling, sometimes terrifying but most of all deeply inspiring, this book is eye-opening and thought-provoking. Junger is one of the most innovative thinkers writing today.

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