I just read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. Junger is a war journalist who posits that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans is mostly an issue with homecoming. That is, the most devastating and longterm psychological stress doesn’t come from the horrors of war so much as from the cold contrast of reintegrating into a society that has lost its sense of community and belonging and mateship.

There are quite a number of ideas he shares that I enjoyed thinking about, albeit based in slightly essentialist evolutionary theory. But the book opens pretty early with a line I particularly like right now:

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.Click To Tweet

Applied to war… We can cope with the terror while ever we have the camaraderie, the sense of purpose provided by feeling we are part of a “community of sufferers” or a “brotherhood of pain”. During the Blitz, for example, suicide rates dropped to zero. Brits recall the era as a time of – yes – happiness. Hanging out in shelters with strangers, Londoners thrived as the experience, like all disasters, he writes, “thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating.”

Applied to us today… We live highly individualist lives in which our productive worth is lessening exponentially and we are not handling the pain. We rarely face disaster as a community; disaster as an individual is frequent enough, but we must suffer this alone and so our pain as a culture is possibly higher than in wartime Britain.

As an aside, we are increasingly protected from hardship, as though it is the worst pain we can face. And as a result, this collective denial of life’s hardship means that when we deal with it, it’s alone and in an individualist way. Which sees us view hardship as an affront to our “selves”, which sees us blame outwards. Which intensifies the pain of it all.

I like the notion of being reminded that hardship is way more tolerable than we’ve been cosseted to believe. Because much of it is. Childbirth, an injury, a family death. Often (mostly?) such things, at some point in the process, also bring an incredible amount of joy as we rally together – the doctors, the funeral director, extended family.

Hardship becomes intolerable when we have to do it alone.

Junger, however, argues that it’s not absence of friends or family that creates the most painful loneliness; it’s absence of broader community. This is what has got me thinking.

I often lament my loneliness as I don’t have family nearby, I’m single and my friends are tied up with busy family lives. Plus, I often retreat from loved ones as a coping mechanism for my bipolar and autoimmune conditions.

But it would seem there’s a salve: connecting more with community, with nearby strangers, who, quite possibly, are in the same boat. Many people I know say they feel just as lonely as I do in their relationships with partners and kids. This salve applies to them, too.

OK, so now it’s a matter of working out what this connecting can look like. How to connect in with it in a culture that discourages us away from it? How to reverse several generations of extracting ourselves from community and working to a “Me v You”, blaming, capitalist model?

A few things that I found work:

  • At the airport cab queue, invite strangers further back in the queue to join you into town
  • Risk my dignity to ask a vague acquaintance from Facebook out for a (IRL) coffee
  • Work from public libraries
  • Go to book reading or to charity events  (they tend to embrace meeting and greeting)
  • Talk to the homeless person on the train (I find they often have wonderful insight)

What about you?

Have your say, leave a comment.