Left Alone

Tribe, part 1

When you’re married to someone who likes disaster movies, then you end up watching a lot of disaster movies. The appeal of disaster movies is the appeal of actual disasters: we get to all get along. We become united – and by something clearly important. When 9-11 happened, when Superstorm Sandy hit, New Yorkers pulled together. Whenever a flood or a tornado or a tidal wave hits a community, you hear the same story: how nice it was that we were all working together. And we needed each other.

If you’ve ever caught yourself secretly hoping for a disaster just because it would be something significant and real, well, you’re not the only one. So much of our lives seem insignificant and unreal because we don't have to work together with others to deal with threats to the tribe’s very survival: coming together to care for each other in a way that feels real, solving problems that feels real, addressing threats that are real. When we’re not doing that for a short period of time it feels like a welcome respite. When we’re not doing that ever, it’s hard for life to feel real for a social species like homo sapiens.

Millions of years of evolution selected out just the traits that were oriented to being social, caring for and protecting the tribe. Sebastian Junger wrote a book called, Tribe. He says:
“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.”
In the 1700s, the European colonists and Native Americans were never far from each other. The colonists, we know, were commercial and industrious. The indigenous peoples were communal and tribal. Colonial society was wealthier, more advanced. The Europeans had more stuff, more powerful tools, could do more things, and they were always working on getting still more. They were making "progress" happen.

Yet something weird was happening. From time to time a European would “go native” – defect from white society and go live with a native tribe. This never happened the other way around. Not that our European ancestors were terribly welcoming overall, but there were some attempts, say, to welcome Indian children into colonist towns and homes. They never wanted to stay. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
Through the colonial period, there were, the history books tell us, occasional wars and skirmishes between the settlers and the First Nations. With war comes prisoner taking. What probably wasn’t mentioned in your school history text is that the Europeans taken prisoner by the Americans often came to prefer life with their captors. When released, they would sometimes ask to stay. When colonists rescued them, they would escape and hide from their rescuers. This made prisoner swap agreements rather awkward. To honor their side of the swap, the natives had to forcibly return colonists, and still some colonists refused to go.
“In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians.” (David Brooks, NYTimes, 2016 Aug 9)
In 1782, six years after the colonists had declared their independence from Britain, Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote,
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”
What’s going on? Is our cultural tradition, so good at domination and progress and doing more and getting more, foregoing what really gives people fulfilling lives?

I understand that evolution has reasons for making us the sort of beings that aren’t ecstatically or contentedly happy all the time. A certain dissatisfaction with things as they are is a necessary motivator to stir us from complacency. But did Western culture take that drive way, way too far?

I know there’s a tendency to romanticize tribal peoples. Tribes did war with each other. Life was often difficult. They were not, by and large, what we would call environmentalists – they, too, deforested and overhunted, and gave little thought to sustainability. But still Sebastian Junger’s description haunts me. These sentences don’t sound like romanticizing:
“They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
Almost never alone. We traded that for more individual autonomy and choice and privacy, for being left alone – being left . . . alone. Was it a good trade? We gained wealth. We lost our strong tribal connectedness. We pay the price in that loss and in higher rates of depression. The World Health Organization reports that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at up to eight times the rate of people in poor countries.

The millennial generation – people who are now between about 15 and 35 years old – may be in some ways choosing community over autonomy more so than previous generations. Millienials are more likely to turn the office into a source of friendships, meaning and social occasions, with less professional distance. Some millenials are trying to reclaim neighborhood hospitality – not as an accidental product of necessity, as it was 100 years ago – but as an intentional choice that requires effort. That feels like a good thing. Humans are built to live tribally. We need our tribe. When we don't have one, it's bad for us.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Tribe"
See also
Part 2: Why Humans Reason
Part 3: What To Do About Confirmation Bias

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