Oprah and Author Sebastian Junger Discuss the Most Profound Question (and More)
Oprah: You write that for hundreds of thousands of years, humans lived in close-knit social groups, or tribes—living and working side by side, sharing resources, protecting one another—but modern society is just the opposite. We have fewer chances to help one another and be helped, and as a result, many of us are depressed and divided. In America these divisions are only getting worse. Is that why you wanted to write the book?
Sebastian Junger: Honestly, yes. I got the initial idea after I spent time as a journalist with American soldiers in Afghanistan. We were completely isolated, shoulder to shoulder in the dirt, firefights almost every day—but there was a strange sense of well-being. After the deployment, a lot of the guys actually said they missed it. It reminded me of something I'd heard from a mentor of mine who was half Lakota Sioux, half Apache. He said that in frontier America, white settlers would run off to join the Indians, but Indians never ran away to join the whites.
I wanted to understand that reluctance to return to our society. Military life is like tribal living. You're rarely alone. You share almost everything. You depend on each other for safety and survival. Compare that with modern life, where we're all in our separate houses and are rarely called on to help one another.
Oprah: Yes, now we're all behind our own hedges, but I grew up in a community where you literally went over to your neighbor's to borrow sugar. And if somebody was in trouble, the rest of the community gathered around that person.
Sebastian Junger: Ironically, though our society of affluence brings safety and stability, it doesn't bring psychological health. As wealth goes up, suicide and depression rates tend to go up. I read one study that compared women in North America with women in Nigeria, and the group with the highest rates of depression was urban North American women, which is the wealthiest. The lowest rates were among rural women in Nigeria. Now, there are obviously huge stresses that come with poverty, but the poorer the society, the more collaborative people have to be. Collaboration is what humans are wired for, because evolutionarily, that's how we've survived.
One interesting thing I found was that if you take an affluent modern society and collapse it during a crisis, like a war or a natural disaster, people begin relating in a more ancient, organic way. They're functioning in small interdependent groups and putting others first. And another irony is that even in terrible times, cooperating makes people feel good.
Oprah: I thought of your book during the Houston floods. On the news there was a young African American man who had been out rescuing people for 24 hours straight. He had a glow about him. A reporter asked, "Aren't you exhausted?" And he said, "No, this is what Texans do." In the worst of times, people get to feel the most themselves.
Sebastian Junger: If hardship brought out the worst in people, the human race wouldn't have survived. Right after 9/11, for instance, the murder rate actually went down in New York City. In World War II during the Blitz, the civilians of London were bombed almost every night for six months, but psychiatric admissions declined.
Often people who live through the trauma are nostalgic when it's over. When I went back to Bosnia 20 years after the brutal civil war, even people who had been badly wounded told me they missed those times. They were missing their more courageous selves.
Oprah: You write that the most profound question is, "What would I risk dying for?"
Sebastian Junger: The natural answer is "for my family." But for most of history, we didn't live in families. We lived in small communities that gave us our sense of safety and place in the world, so the natural answer would be "for my people." The blessing and the tragedy of modern life is that we don't need our community to survive anymore. When we lose that idea, we lose a sense of who we are.
Oprah: Isn't that the ultimate expression of patriotism, the idea of dying for your country? And yet it feels like there are multiple tribes within the tribe that's supposed to be the United States.
Sebastian Junger: Soldiers join the military to serve their country, but when bullets are flying, it's hard to fight for an abstract notion like patriotism. They're fighting for the people standing next to them, and it doesn't matter who's a Republican or a Democrat, or who's black or white or Christian or Muslim or gay or straight. If Congress and all Americans could manage to ignore those differences, we would have a perfect country, but somehow we cannot rise to that level of nobility.
Oprah: You write that we are living in a country that seems to be at war with itself. What can we offer one another instead of contempt?
Sebastian Junger: I would never want to pass a law limiting freedom of speech, but that doesn't mean we have to condone statements that undermine basic national unity and respect. Imagine being asked to defend a country where some citizens say the man in the White House isn't their president, as some of my fellow Democrats do. Or a major presidential contender accuses the commander in chief of not even being a U.S. citizen. Those kinds of statements erode trust in our democracy, and it's up to both parties to publicly reject them. We have to restore confidence that we are a nation that loves and believes in itself.
Oprah: One part of Tribe that especially resonated with me was the loss of our "shared public meaning." How can we find it?
Sebastian Junger: We have to develop it for ourselves. Right now, America doesn't ask us to do anything besides pay taxes. We don't even have to vote. But as psychologists will tell you, when you have to sacrifice for something, you value it more. What about national service for young people? Everybody between 18 and 24 could spend a year or two working for this country in some capacity. It'd be an amazing thing. And it would mix this country racially, culturally, economically.
Oprah: What an interesting idea, that community service isn't something you do because you committed a crime—it's part of our system.
Sebastian Junger: I got that idea from my father, who was a war refugee—his family escaped Spain during the Franco regime and fled to Paris. Then they were lucky enough to escape the Nazis and make it to America. He was a pacifist while I was growing up during the Vietnam War, but in 1980, when I got my draft card and said I wasn't going to sign it, he said, "Yes, you are. In Europe, there are thousands of graves of young Americans like you who died liberating the world from fascism. You don't know that the next war won't need to be fought. This is an amazing country, and you owe it something." So then I signed the card with enormous pride. I felt like I was part of something noble.
Sebastian Junger is the author of a number of books, including The Perfect Storm, and co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo. This conversation was featured on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. You can listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts.