Sebastian Junger | Tribe (Episode 537)

Sebastian Junger (@sebastianjunger) is a journalist, filmmaker, and bestselling author; he joins us to discuss his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and his experiences covering war for the past 20 years.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Why do some people get addicted to war and recall times of crisis with fondness?
  • Does an affluent society free of hardship and danger deprive its citizens of an intrinsic need to be useful?
  • Are war journalists armed, and do they contribute to group defense in the field?
  • What happens when someone who’s been through war comes home, and why is it often so difficult for them to reintegrate into society?
  • Why is there a phrase for “going native” but not “going civilized?”
  • And so much more…

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War has been around as long as there have been people. It might seem an antiquated concept for those of us who have only experienced peace behind the cozy protection of civilization, but it’s in our DNA. And while it’s easy to see why war takes such a mental toll on people who endure it, we can’t ignore the fact that we’ve also evolved — to some degree — to adapt to its horrors.

In episode 537 of The Art of Charm, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging author Sebastian Junger tells us what he’s learned about human nature over 20 years of covering war as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. While you might not be surprised to learn it brings out the worst in human nature, it also facilitates the best.

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War may bring out the worst in human nature, but to someone like Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, it also draws out the best.

“[Soldiers] are trained to value the lives of others as highly as they value their own life,” Sebastian says. “It’s an extreme generosity. They do everything collectively. There really is an ethos of serving the group. In all of these very ancient, noble human ideals, for very pragmatic survival reasons, are abundantly in evidence in combat.”

Sebastian witnessed young soldiers in these intense situations giving their all for the good of the platoon, and contrasts it with his own upbringing in an affluent, fairly crime-free suburb of Boston where real hardship was rare.

“There was nothing that would test a young man like myself,” says Sebastian. “I didn’t have to somehow decide I should make sacrifices for my community because they needed me.”

It’s this affluence and relative freedom from danger that contradicts the human condition of the last few hundred millennia, and it leaves so many young people in western society without a feeling of purpose, deeply unsatisfied, and woefully underutilized. There’s no rite of passage that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of productive adulthood, and it can take a long time for a person to make the adjustment — if they ever do.

It wasn’t until he put himself to the test by seeking a career as a journalist covering war zones that Sebastian began to see the nobility of humanity under duress — and it made sense.

“Once you start looking into it, it’s just incredibly common that hardship and danger produce positive emotional reactions in people,” says Sebastian. “If you think about it in evolutionary terms, it couldn’t be otherwise. If hardship and danger produced bad human behaviors…selfishness, people just looking out for themselves and not taking care of the group…the human race wouldn’t survive. We are the descendants of people who responded in socially positive ways to hardship and danger.”

Humans have an intrinsic need to be useful to their society, but modern affluent communities don’t tend to need the individual for anything. “The great human capacity for serving the group goes unused in an affluent society,” Sebastian says.

Sometimes it takes bombs or other crises to shake up these affluent societies to a degree where people feel necessary to their survival — and they recall these periods of chaos fondly as the most meaningful time of their lives. In fact, studies done in post-WWII Germany showed that morale was lowest in the cities that experienced the least amount of fighting; and the highest in the cities that were most decimated. Similar studies done in the ’70s in Northern Ireland during The Troubles found depression rates declining in areas that saw the most violence, and rising in places that remained relatively peaceful.

“The people in the peaceful counties knew that their brothers and sisters were suffering this violence in other counties — but they couldn’t do anything about it,” says Sebastian. “They weren’t part of the fight, but they knew the fight was going on.”

In the same way, it’s easy to see how veterans and even journalists like Sebastian (and former guest Dan Harris) who have lived and survived in war zones by being part of a strongly bonded group feel anxious when they return home. They’re safely out of harm’s way, but they know people who are still in the fight and there’s nothing they can do to help them.

But war and violence aren’t necessarily what create this kind of bond. Sebastian points out that firefighters, loggers, oil workers, and commercial fishermen depend on the group dynamic and human loyalty to survive because the consequences of failure could — as in war — just as easily be death.

“When the stakes aren’t as high, the sense of meaningfulness is not as high…and we like meaningfulness,” says Sebastian. “We’ll actually risk our lives to achieve a sense of meaningfulness in our lives.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about why the chance of an individual’s survival in a group goes up when they value the lives of their comrades over their own, how much a war journalist contributes to group defense in the field, why it’s often difficult for people who have been through war to reintegrate back to civilian society, why there’s a phrase for “going native” but not “going civilized,” how natives would hold ceremonies to psychologically prepare warriors to return back to the tribe, why PTSD is healthy when we’re in dangerous situations, how PTSD becomes a problem when it outlasts its usefulness, why readjustment from communal living to civilian life may be one of the major unaddressed causes of depression in people returning from war, how democracy has gotten especially messy this election year, and lots more.

THANKS, SEBASTIAN JUNGER!

If you enjoyed this session with Sebastian Junger, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

Click here to thank Sebastian Junger at Twitter!

Resources from this episode:

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You're using your credit cards so much, but you're probably not getting the travel rewards, low rates, or cash back bonuses you should be. Visit NerdWallet.com/CHARM to find the ones that work as hard for you as you work for them!

We've talked about the benefits of a standing desk on this show before. VariDesk converts your existing desk or cubicle to a sit/stand workstation, and allows you to raise from a seated to standing position in just seconds! Go here to try one for 30 days -- risk-free!

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 883 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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