Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
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.
~ Sebastian Junger
The title was what drew me—a woman who didn’t find her tribe until well into her fifth decade—to Sebastian Junger’s recent book, a thoughtful, richly-researched blend of anthropology, history, and psychology. He dedicated Tribe. On Homecoming and Belonging to his brothers who returned from war, as do so many, with PTSD.
Junger was raised in a safe, affluent Connecticut community where life was predictable, where residents lived far from the highway behind high hedges, and where neighbors rarely knew each other. The few problems that arose were solved by police, fire department, or town maintenance crews. The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly—for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity.
Yet he lived during a time in a place where danger rarely happened and he wondered: how, in the human experience, do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
Following his 1986 college graduation, Junger ached to be involved with something, anything that could cause people to band together in a common cause. He decided he’d place himself into a situation where he had little to no control and set out to hitchhike across the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Minnesota. His backpack held quality camping gear and a week’s worth of food on the morning Junger was walking in Gillette, Wyoming and noticed a man wearing worn, greasy clothing approaching him.
“Where are you headed?” the man asked.
“California,” Junger said.
“How much food do you got?” the wild haired man asked.”
Junger felt wary and pondered how to reply. The man clearly didn’t have much and, while Junger was willing to share what he had, he didn’t want to be robbed, which appeared quite likely.
Junger minimized his larder and said, “Just a little cheese.”
“You can’t get to California with just a little cheese,” the man said. Their conversation continued and, in time, the man revealed he lived in a conked-out car and walked three miles each morning to a coal mine seeking fill-in work. This particular day they didn’t need him and he was walking back home.
“So, I don’t need these,” he said and gave Junger the bologna sandwich, apple, and chips from his lunchbox, food most likely prepared in a church kitchen.
He added, ”I saw you from town and … wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Junger thanked him and watched the man for several seconds as he walked back toward Gillette.
I thought about that man the rest of my trip, Junger wrote. In fact, Junger thought about him all his life. The man had been generous, yes, but more than that, he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Junger reflected that family has to take us in, as Frost penned, but tribe might be defined as the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I’ll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe.
This concise 136 page book shows how rare and precious tribes are in our present society. In showing us how their absence has affected us, Junger explores the ironic truths that for many: war feels better than peace, hardship can be a blessing, and catastrophic events can be recalled more caringly than spectacular events, such as a wedding. Each part of this book completely fascinated me, particularly the exploration of early Native American culture so rich in tribal practices. I highly recommend Tribe.
Sebastian Junger is the New York Times bestselling author of War, The Perfect Storm, Fire, and A Death in Bellmont. Together with Tim Hetherington, he directed the documentary Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and has been awarded a National Magazine Award and an SAIS Novartis Prize for journalism. He lives in New York City.