Searching for Community

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Sebastian Junger has written some great books based on his experiences while imbedded with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also wrote about the traumatic events of The Perfect Storm. Those experiences with trauma and with the explosion of PTSD experienced when soldiers return home led him explore the phenomenon that soldiers often miss the battlefield when they come home. The PTSD, he explains, is not something that they experience while in combat, but when they return home. In his book, Tribe, he explores the factors that contribute to feelings of positive well-being that combatants experience in battle that they are missing at home, and what it is about life in the US today that contributes to these feelings.

While troops are in combat situations, they enjoy the strong comaraderie, sense of belonging, and feelings of being useful that come along with the danger. Similarly, survivors of the Blitz in England reminisce about the struggles of that period, remembering the feeling that they were in that situation together and felt the strong bonds among Londoners at that time. While it seems antithetical that soldiers would miss battle and Londoners miss the blitz, Junger explains that the feelings of depression and hopelessness that many Americans and northern Europeans experience now have their roots in our shared lack of community.

Once soldiers return to the US, they lose the connection they forged with their fellow soldiers, the sense that they were doing something vital, and the shared goals they had in battle. Once home the trauma they experienced is amplified by the isolation, difficulty fitting in, and finding meaningful work they find. All the military seems to offer a PTSD sufferer is a life on disability payments. These send the strong message to returning vets that they are wounded and not capable of contributing to society, when what they need is a tight community and meaningful work.

Other factors that contribute to the nationwide epidemic of hopelessness is the huge chasm between the haves and the rest of us. In the past the pay disparity between executives and workers was not as vast as it now is. Most Americans struggle to make ends meet, and many thousands lost their homes and retirements during the Great Recession, while the bankers and  other architects of the Great Recession walked away with golden parachutes and immense bonuses. We are missing a sense that we are all in this together, and that anyone who tries to grab more than their fair share will be punished. Paul Manafort hides his millions overseas and “forgets” to pay taxes, and the President calls him a “Fine man.”This kind of disconnect is both confusing and off-putting. Where is our shared sense of right and wrong and our disdain for those who greedily cheat the rest of us?

Junger suggests that we take time to study what made Indian tribes work. He reports that in Early America a good number of the men, women, and children who had been kidnapped from white settlements and were recovered by their families, fled and returned to the Indians. There they felt secure and part of a tight-knit community whose survival depended on every member doing his or her job. Nobody was a shirker and nobody took more than his or her fair share.

We are a culture of individualists bent of getting rich at whatever cost.Times are hard and people feel isolated and helpless. Elderly people are shunted off to old-age homes and babies are raised in day care, while families kill themselves working long hours just to survive. They dream of riches, but struggle to pay bills. It is only during times of crisis  that people come out of their individual homes and join with their neighbors to get by. Junger reports that feelings of well-being, reduction in cases of suicide, and decrease in new cases of depression rose in the months after 9/11.

I lived in Charlotte during Hurricane Hugo. We were without power in Dilworth for weeks and after the communal cookouts where we all shared the food from our refrigerators, we were in and out of each other’s homes helping each other, sharing what we had. Maria and Calvin had a gas hot water heater and we would line up to take showers. I felt safe and nurtured. But when the power returned, we retreated to our own locked homes and went back to our individual lives.

I long for the kind of community where I am seen, involved, and feeling like what I do matters. Everyone wants those things. Junger suggests that the first step is to look for places where our interests intersect with those of others. Pay attention to ways we are alike and stop focusing on how we are different. And join forces with those who are passionate about the same things we are.