Book Review: Tribe — Rich Digs The Modern Foxhole

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Penny,

I really enjoyed reading Tribe, just as I’ve enjoyed all of Sebastian Junger’s books, especially War. If you haven’t read War yet, I HIGHLY recommend it. While you’re at it, watch the related video documentary Restrepo. Incredibly powerful.

The basic premise of Tribe, as I understand it, is this: Soldiers returning from war are haunted by the loss of their community (i.e. their combat unit) as well as their sense of purpose, and the modern world is often unable to fill these voids.

Let me say up front that I’d never dispute anyone’s experience. I know people who have served in war zones, and I won’t claim to understand what they went through over there and after returning home. So, any comments represent my thinking on certain concepts, using the book (and your post) as a launching pad.

HAPPINESS IS BEING, DOING, CONNECTING

You wrote: The self-determination theory… those three things are basically what you described in your Philosophy on Happiness. Is this where you got it from, or did you figure that out all by yourself?

Yep, I’m a big believer in self-determination theory, although I didn’t know what it was called. I’m not sure how I came to it, but studying theology / religion, reading books on happiness, talking with friends, and years of self-reflection got me there. When I looked back at my Philosophy of Happiness post, I noticed that I used different terms, but basically Junger and I (and Psychology Today) agree.

The Big 3

It’s all about being, doing, and connecting. On these points, I’m in the foxhole with Junger.

As an aside, I find the legal profession data point to be a red herring: “A study found that conventional success in the legal profession had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being.”

No kidding! Lawyers!? Lawyers are notoriously unhappy at work! I know plenty, and 90% of them dislike their jobs. What about conventional success among non-lawyers? Conventional success is not a panacea, but it does often flow from competence in work, which is factor in happiness. Just sayin’.

THE PROS AND CONS OF TRIBES AND TRAGEDIES

Tribes, or close-knit communities, help provide an environment for all 3 happiness essentials to flourish. I’ve experienced this. While doing humanitarian work and during my career, I’ve bonded with fellow workers as we experienced challenges and stressful situations. This makes sense.

But here’s the deal. Difficult circumstances — especially extreme tragedies, like wars — may forge bonds, but that doesn’t mean these circumstances are desirable. I understand what Junger is saying about evolution and the bonds of war, but maybe these boys would’ve been better of if they’d never gone to war in the first place, or if they’d found a way to make connections without tragedy.

The 3 essentials of happiness, by the way, don’t say anything about hardship as a requirement. Hardship pushes people together, but there’s always a let down when it’s over. To use a ridiculous example, this is why people fall in love on The Bachelor and then break up when regular life hits. The circumstance is not sustainable.

I’ll go a step further. The biggest problem with tribes is they’re so … tribal! Tribes make people do some really stupid things, both to people within the tribe (initiation rites, forced compliance) and to people outside the tribe (demonization of the other). The more you believe in your tribe, the more you distrust dissent from tribal norms. For every tribal combat unit, there’s another tribal combat unit –equally bonded by war — trying to kill them.

Some tribes function like cults — they feel good while you’re in them, but not so much if you want out. So let’s tap the brakes on wanting society to go tribal.

Think about the “tribe” we were born into — small-town Midwestern Americana. I don’t hate it, I see good things about it, but I don’t miss it. Our grandfather and grandmother created a stir when they got engaged because he was French and she was Polish. Think how crazy that is. This was only a couple generations ago in America, and they were both European Catholics! Today, my family has cross-cultural, interracial, interfaith marriages. We are breaking down tribal connections, and I think it’s progress for the better.

THE PROS AND CONS OF MODERN WESTERN SOCIETY

You quoted Junger: The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing – it seems obvious on the face of it – buy why Western society is so unappealing.

Honestly, Western society is not unappealing to me. Not long ago, I traveled briefly to Amman, Jordan. Jordan is still a fairly tribal society. Interesting to visit, but as far as living there — no thanks. Around the same time, I traveled to Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Very modern, and I could’ve stayed forever — a wonderful culture.

I disagree that modern Western society is all about valuing “beauty, money, and status.” Maybe for some people. Maybe if you watched the Oscars last night. To me, modern society is about choice — you can create your own path to happiness rather than have it dictated by the tribe. It’s true that having choices and piecing together modern community can be more difficult than having a ready made tribal life. It’s a trade off, but I’ll take that trade any day.  

Here’s the thing. There are many paths to happiness and well-being. The last book we reviewed, The Cozy Life, talked about how to do be happy through hygge, which is all about simple comforts. Denmark is modern and Western — you don’t need to be starving or running for your life to be happy.

You wrote: But how do you think about a statement like that, in terms of being a wealthy person, Rich? Do you feel like you’re missing out on something, leading the privileged life that you are, and not having to rely on anybody?

I rely on others for emotional, physical, and intellectual support, but I can’t think of any reason why I’d want financial dependence. I don’t see “financial dependence” on the chart of happiness essentials.

Being born in the US to a good, decent family is privileged compared to much of the world. As blogger Wealth Made Simple recently explained, if we’re reading blogs, we are all richer than we think. We live in a free, wealthy society. You and I have the same privilege in this regard. 

Sure, I feel like I’m missing out on something. I’m missing out on certain extended family relationships, deep communal roots, and a connection to the land that go way back. I’m also missing out on a lot of tribal pettiness and bullshit; on being stuck in a small town with limited career opportunities and little interaction with different people from different cultures.

What about you, Penny? Do you think having less money has helped you avoid missing out on something? Or to flip the question, do you think earning a higher income would cause you to miss out on something that you currently experience?

Maybe I’m overstating this. I concede that modern Western society is imperfect, just as all societies are. But I don’t think modern society is the antithesis of community. The challenge of modern society, to me, is figuring out how to make the most of our choices; how to make real connections in new ways, independent of tribes; how to dig a modern foxhole.

It’s incredible that I can enjoy those around me, in my immediate community, as well as fly across the world and have a ton in common with people from other modern countries. I don’t put much stake in online communities, but when I read blogs like Mustard Seed MoneyGo Finance Yourself!, and Retire Before Dad, I realize there are commonalities to be had. Not exactly a tribe, but pretty cool all the same.

Anyway, I’m a bit off track from Junger’s thesis, but those are my thoughts. Junger is awesome and this was a great book!

Best,

Rich

  

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