Discover more from Lean Out with Tara Henley
Weekend reads: On transformation
Reading Tribe, by the bestselling author, war reporter and filmmaker Sebastian Junger
As someone who reads pretty much constantly, and writes about it for a living, I get a lot of requests for recommendations. What are you reading these days? What new books have blown your mind? What is one underrated title that you’ve come across lately?
But I think the question I get asked most is: What is one book that’s changed your life?
In the age of celebrity memoirs and identitarian-driven publishing, people who love to read want to know that exceptional writing still exists — and still has the power to transform. Readers want to know that there are still books out there that are capable of radically altering your perspective. Of forever changing how you see the world, and your place in it.
That is exactly what Tribe by Sebastian Junger did for me. I was thinking about it this weekend as I re-read it for probably the sixth time, planning to gift it to a young person who also looks to books to help him understand what it means to be human.
Tribe, a book-length essay, grew out of a piece that former war reporter Junger wrote for Vanity Fair, making the case that post-traumatic stress disorder is less about the severity of combat a soldier experiences, and more about the dysfunctional society that he returns home to. Consider this passage:
Any discussion of PTSD and its associated sense of alienation in society must address the fact that many soldiers find themselves missing the war after it’s over. That troubling fact can be found in written accounts from war after war, country after country, century after century. Awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up. There are ancient human behaviors in war — loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation — that typify good soldiering and can’t be easily found in modern society. This can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to: after World War II, many Londoners claimed to miss the communal underground living that characterized life during the Blitz (despite the fact that more than 40,000 civilians lost their lives). And the war that is missed doesn’t even have to be a shooting war: “I am a survivor of the AIDS epidemic,” a man wrote on the comment board of an online talk I gave about war. “Now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, I must admit that I miss those days of extreme brotherhood … which led to deep emotions and understandings that are above anything I have felt since the plague years.”
What all these people seem to miss isn’t danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation that danger and loss often engender. Humans evolved to survive in extremely harsh environments, and our capacity for cooperation and sharing clearly helped us do that. Structurally, a band of hunter-gatherers and a platoon in combat are almost exactly the same: in each case, the group numbers between 30 and 50 individuals, they sleep in a common area, they conduct patrols, they are completely reliant on one another for support, comfort, and defense, and they share a group identity that most would risk their lives for. Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not at all surprising that many soldiers respond to combat in positive ways and miss it when it’s gone.
Years after I first read these paragraphs, I was going through a crisis of my own when a family member loaned me Junger’s book. It’s hard to describe the sense of relief that I felt reading it. It suddenly became clear to me that — as an anthropologist told Junger for his Vanity Fair article — we were living in a profoundly anti-human society. And that, in that context, the psychic distress I was experiencing was normal.
Arriving at the right diagnosis, of course, is essential to pursuing the right prescriptions. Knowing that my problem was a lack of deep and meaningful connection set me on the path of writing my book, Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, and ultimately of overcoming my own isolation and alienation.
Significantly, when I reached out to Junger as part of that process, his response epitomized the generosity of spirit that I encountered in his book. He emailed back, agreeing to an interview and providing his number. “Call me anytime,” he wrote.
Here is the resulting conversation, which took place in New York, excerpted from my book.
I arrived in New York City in May, booking into a room at the Ace Hotel with a desk and a view of the Empire State Building. As I waited for interviews, I traced the footpaths of years gone by. I walked past the old blue awning of the Skylight Diner on 34th Street, where in my twenties I’d once eaten cheeseburgers at two in the morning with a rapper’s entourage. Past an impressive tower on Avenue of the Americas where I’d met with my first literary agent, and then a shabby office block in Midtown where I’d met my first magazine editor. I walked past a Korean restaurant where I’d once eaten lunch with a DJ, delighted by all the tiny, delicious dishes that arrived at our table. Seaweed, kimchee, pickled vegetables.
I walked past Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, where I used to buy bagels and lox, blocks from the room I rented from a retired professor in a sprawling, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive with a wraparound deck and breathtaking views of the Hudson River. I thought of this professor again as I walked through the farmer’s market at Union Square, where she’d once taken me to shop for salad greens, which she kept in bags stowed away in the fridge, safe from skittish cockroaches. I thought, too, of Madeleine L’Engle, who’d also lived on the Upper West Side for decades. Felt anew my grief at never having had the chance to meet her.
I walked past Jefferson Market Garden in the Village, its verdant greenery the backdrop of photos my cousin and I took the weekend before her wedding, five years before, when we were still in our thirties. I ate creamy frozen custard in Madison Square Park at twilight, as we’d done then too, surrounded by crowds of laughing strangers and the cacophony of the nearby playground, strings of lights twinkling against a dusk sky.
First thing in the morning, I walked down to the Hudson, jarred by the construction, the cranes overheard, the assault of jackhammers. The air smelled of smoke and asphalt and alienation. A haze of smog hung low. A woman crossing the street shouted at a truck that turned too slowly. I felt as if I was out walking in a mad dystopia, where work never ceased and everyone, everywhere was miserable.
But then I slipped onto the High Line greenway, that renovated railway track above the streets, and in an instant I was in gardens where you could breathe again and people seemed to have the time to smile. There were wildflowers growing through the cracked pavement, and public art (notably, a massive clock with a banner that read “Time to organize”), and dogs and grinning toddlers. There was life. And there was hope.
I wandered down to the gleaming lobby of the Gansevoort Hotel, where I met the journalist, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger for ginger beers as men played pool nearby and the mournful, melodic Rihanna chorus of Drake’s “Take Care” filled the room.
Junger told me that he’d been thinking about community for much of his life, in part because the affluent Boston suburb that he’d grown up in had had zero community. “Teenagers notice things in a very poignant way — their hearts are wide open,” he said. “And if you grow up in an affluent community, the thing that I think young people long for — which is human connection — they actually can’t find around them. I grew up very, very aware of that for some reason.
“I look back on my twenties, and I was living by myself, making very little money waiting tables, struggling to be a writer,” he said. “With no meaningful contribution to the world, no community to be a part of. I was an example of what I wrote about in my book Tribe, this sort of unaffiliated, unattached person.”
In college, navigating an existential crisis, he’d spent weekends with his best friend’s aunt and uncle. The uncle, Ellis Settle, was of Lakota and Apache ancestry. He’d been born on a wagon in Missouri during the Great Depression, and had spent part of the 1960s in the South registering black voters. After dinners on those college weekends, as Junger recounts in Tribe, Ellis would sit with him, drinking cold coffee and smoking Carlton ultralights and telling him stories.
“He made sense of what I was experiencing in my little suburban life,” Junger said. “He made sense of why that felt so hard and wrong to me.” In some ways, he said, Tribe was actually an elaboration of what Ellis had told him. “I was really confused by why I lived such a privileged life that felt so empty and felt so inadequate. I didn’t understand.”
He was a lifesaver, Junger said. “If I hadn’t met him, God knows.”
Listening to Junger talk, it struck me that his whole life had been about this search for deeper human connection. As an anthropologist, he’d begun thinking through this in anthropological terms, comparing modern society to more ancient indigenous cultures. And then he’d become a war correspondent.
“After I was with the American soldiers in combat in Afghanistan, my sense of loss and sorrow after the end of that deployment really puzzled me,” he said. “And I finally connected the dots. Like, ‘Oh, I finally had a community. That’s what I’m grieving is — that sense of connection to other people.’
“You know, not your best friend, not your girlfriend, not your family — that’s a given,” he continued. “No, these are guys I didn’t know six months ago. Why do I feel so close to them, and why is it so hard to give that up?”
The lightbulb went on for Junger during an interview, he said, when a reporter asked him why veterans were so messed up when they came home. “I took offence to it a little bit, and I said, ‘Maybe we’re messed up,’” Junger recalled. “‘Maybe what’s hard for them isn’t that they’re returning with problems. It’s that they are returning knowing the solution and it’s not to be found here. Maybe that’s actually what’s going on. Maybe they are returning to a messed-up society with actually something resembling a healthy state of mind, because of their experience together.’ It just came out of me in the interview. And after I said that, I thought, Oh shit, that’s it!”
War, of course, as he writes in Tribe, throws soldiers back into a tribal way of life. Danger drives them to live together in small units, do everything with one another, from eating to sleeping. They might not like their fellow soldiers, but they’d fight to the death to protect them. This deep loyalty, collectivity, brotherhood — where race and class falls away — is emotionally gratifying, and immensely healing. And very difficult to give up, once soldiers return home, greeted instead by a fractured, individualistic, and alienating society.
Since Tribe had come out several years ago, Junger told me, he’d heard from many veterans who’d shared how transformative the book had been for them. One soldier, who’d been very depressed, had shot himself in the head. He’d survived, and was living with his parents, broke. But after reading Junger’s book, he sent him a Facebook message saying it had proved to be his own lifesaver. It had finally explained, on a deep level, what he’d been experiencing. What was wrong. This man, he said, now gave Tribe to all the veterans he knew, hoping to save them the same suffering.
For a writer, even one as accomplished as Junger, who’d won National Magazine and Peabody Awards, topped the New York Times bestseller list, seen his book The Perfect Storm turned into a film and been nominated for an Oscar for his first feature-length documentary, Restrepo — this was an incredibly powerful experience. “Everyone wants to be needed,” Junger said. “That’s how I can be needed in my life, in this world.”
He wasn’t a firefighter and he didn’t go to war, he said. But he did feel, now, like he’d been able to help people, to serve. “It made me feel, probably for the first time in my life, really part of this nation,” he continued. “Because I was contributing to it.”
Before we left, I asked Junger if he’d ever felt, again, the intense communal spirit he’d experienced during war. He emailed me the next day to say that in fact he had, at the boxing gym he worked out at. There, inner-city kids sparred with Wall Street suits on their lunch breaks. Everyone was equal in standing.
“You are judged for how respectful you are of other athletes and how hard you train — that’s it,” he wrote me. “And sparring is extremely intimidating to everyone and so there is that element of fear or stress that help people connect with each other. Muhammad Ali said he started boxing because he liked the idea that in the ring everyone is equal — there’s no race, no rich or poor, nothing.”
I thought again of something Junger had said at the Gansevoort. He had stressed that for tribe-building to be effective, it had to be organic and communal. It couldn’t be limited to narrow definitions of a group, based on narrow affiliations or interests. It had to include everybody.
“When people say, ‘I’ve got to find my tribe’ — if you’re looking for your tribe, you’ll never find one,” he’d said. “It’s around you. If it’s not around you, in your neighborhood, you don’t have one.”
Junger’s latest book, Freedom, is out in paperback in several weeks. It chronicles a year he spent walking the rail lines of the U.S. East Coast with two army veterans, a photographer and his dog. You can read my interview with Junger on that book — and the near-death experience he had while writing it — at The Globe and Mail.
And if you want to hear more from Sebastian Junger, Bari Weiss had an incredibly moving interview with him on her Honestly podcast earlier this year.
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