Tribal Life Resurfaces
Updated: Mar 19
Were you raised in a family? Or a tribe? There's a difference. Me, I was fortunate enough to be raised not only in a tight-knit family, but in a tribe. We didn’t use that word, of course. It would’ve been too anthropological for our taste, but by definition, a tribe is "a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect..." Oh yes, that was us. I'm sorry to say that while we children reaped the benefits of the community our parents created, where friends were aunts and other kids you didn’t actually share blood with were siblings, as we children assimilate, modernize, and become successful, the tribe is dissolving. I'm afraid my son will be raised in a family, not a tribe. And it kind of breaks my heart.
Unfortunately, in modern society, we see the resurfacing of a tribal mentality only during times of severe trouble, such as World War II, the aftermath of 9/11, and the period we're currently in, where we are all threatened by a national and global pandemic. Suddenly, the self-sufficient, material-heavy, isolated way we've been living seems trivial. Suddenly, the bickering, name calling, and demonization of one another seems petty.
Right now, we want to behave as if we're in this together, because we are, and for the first time in a long time, we feel it. As humans, we need to belong to something; most of us—anxious, depressed—don’t even know that’s what we’re missing. So when national times of crisis hit, a piece of us awakens. A dormant, ancient piece that needs what suddenly being thrust into dire trouble together gives—a sense of knowing our plight is the same, and the empathy, connection, and cooperation that knowing generates.
In his fantastic book, "Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging," Sebastian Junger writes,
"Acting in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community." He goes on to talk about a range of issues related to tribal life, and the dissolution of it, including rampage killings, which of course have been a plague upon our society. The first rampage shootings were recorded in the 1930s, during The Great Depression.
During that time, "profoundly disturbed violent individuals may not have felt inhibited by the social bonds that restrained previous generations of potential killers,” writes Junger.
Rampage shootings then dropped during World War II, rose again in the ‘80s, and have been climbing back up since then, with the exception, it’s worth noting, of the two years following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, where, within the unity and solidarity of American life, in other words, in our brief return to a tribal way of living, there were none. Take a moment to let that sink in. The more division in our society, the more we see ourselves as separate from one another, the more we see our differences as opposed to what binds us—be that our American nationality, or our greater connection as human beings—the more inclined the more disturbed among us are to shoot and kill indiscriminately and without pause. Without the sense of tribe hemming then in, these people feel they belong to nothing and no one. If you feel no attachment to people, I imagine it's easier to murder them.
A famous case in Roseto, PA in the 1960s, where a strong tribal way of life still existed among the town’s Italian American community, demonstrated the physical and spiritual healing inherent in tribal life. Scientists discovered that people in Roseto, who, living by the traditional Italian belief of malocchio, where others, if they were envious of you, could curse you with the Evil Eye, lived humbly. They didn’t flash wealth, even if they had it, and they didn’t live ostentatiously, but in community. They helped each other, worked together, and supported one another. What scientists discovered was that Rosetans didn’t have heart attacks. When the rest of the wealthy, successful country was dying of heart attacks at alarming rates, people in Roseto, with no care to their diets of meatballs and pasta, were not. Why, researchers sought to discover? The answer was a simple one—they lived as a tribe, and in that tribe they felt safe and supported. Wealth and success equals privacy, and it lessens the need for reliance on others, which can easily slide into isolation.
"Modern society, despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technologically, is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history,” writes Junger. “As affluence and urbanization rise in society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up, not down."
It's disheartening that it takes a pandemic for us to realize that we need one another. It's always the silver lining in tragedies.