Thursday, August 18, 2016

The problem with lone wolves

Among the to-read books on my to-do list is the latest study by Sebastian Junger, Tribe, which, like all of his books, deals with an important topic in a thoughtfully done, wide ranging manner, in this case combining history, psychology and anthropology.

Junger explores our all-important human connection to the community into which we are born or live: our tribe. This in itself makes it noteworthy for me, concerned as I long have been by the dangers of extreme individualism, at the expense of the common good, an individualism that underlies so much American culture (consider the Second Amendment furor). And having taught courses on masculinity, I remain interested in studies that deal with the lives of men as men.

Why has tribal society captured the imagination of people, men in particular, for centuries? The answer is, apparently, found in our evolutionary past as a communal species. Those who study the tribal cultures of earlier times, such as the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf, inevitably realize the emphasis on loyalty and belonging rather than individual bravado that typified such a society.

The practical application of this to the contemporary American veteran, especially young men returning from combat in the Middle East shell-shocked, as they once said, or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as we say today, calls out for the attention that Junger has devoted to the issue.

So many men in our  society are disconnected from families, who live far  away, from religious affiliation, from other social organizations: they go it alone, often with disastrous results: drugs, alcoholism, depression, maybe violence.  This syndrome lies behind the many young men drawn into terrorist groups: they are desperate to belong to some group that gives them a reason to live.

Carl Jung wrote that a man alone, without family or faith, is prone to evil (my paraphrase).  The evils involved are often psychological: violence to the self as well as to others.

The famous Swiss psychologist knew that the individual, a social being, cannot be divorced from some form of community; and that he must find his role in the world as part of that society, not as a lone wolf. The life of the lone wolf is unnatural.

We are destined to be part of something larger than ourselves.  Men in particular need intimate bonds, not merely sexual, but bonds of sharing and friendship--no group more so that the combat veterans returning to American shores and finding a lack of closeness. The intimate bonds of platoon life are suddenly gone, and they drift because the society they return to values individual achievement more than communal life.

I'm glad that Sebastian Junger has given attention to men and tribes since, every thinking person is concerned about the increase in violence in the world, often perpetrated by young, rootless men.

As someone once said, a man alone is in bad company.

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