Packs and tribes

Here is something I learned today: it is not easy to settle into an entirely new routine, even if it’s one you’ve fantasized about for a few years.  Today, the high school student and professor are both back in their regular routines, and the one who just submitted the last of her grad school applications (my in-home librarian) left for the mid-morning shift at Feldman’s at 9:30 AM.

It’s quiet.  Where are the problems to solve?  The fires to put out?  The emails to answer (oh, right–I’m just ignoring them)? The documents to write?

Hold on a second, there are documents to write.

But at the moment, the quiet is a bit disconcerting.  There’s not even a dog–yet–to distract me.

There are several dog books in our living room, though, and they have been a bit distracting, if also necessary.  Here are the ones I’ve read in the past two weeks.


I will spare you the full review, except to say that if my family thought this year was the chance to see me in non-dean mode, they were entirely wrong in their thinking.  I am going to be the dean of this dog.  Because if I’ve learned one thing from these books (together with the unpictured one by Cesar Millan that I’m listening to on my Audible app), it is that a pack animal needs an alpha.  I can do that.

But here’s another thing I’m learning this week when I’m not consuming the dog books: we are pack animals, too.  I’m reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe with a group of folks, a kind of a tribe come to think of it.  We haven’t met yet to talk about it–we have a date tomorrow–but I am grateful that I will have the opportunity for conversation about this book.

Tribe is a full-blown indictment of modern American society written from the standpoint of a journalist who has been surprised to discover that he’s been happiest–or, most content–in his life when he’s been part of a collective effort to avoid being killed.  Embedded with American troops in Afghanistan in 2010, Junger found that he’d never felt more clear of purpose, more truly and meaningfully alive, than when he was at war.  Coming back felt “morally dispiriting” because he was no longer part of a group of people who  relied so urgently on  each other for their survival. This, he says, is precisely what’s wrong with the modern world–it “eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good” (59).

Junger’s focus is, at least ostensibly, on veterans, and the assault of modern self-interest and alienation on their mental health when they return home after having been part of a tribe.  The prevalence of chronic PTSD in returning veterans in the twenty-first century is not normal, but it is also not caused by what they have done and witnessed in the combat zone.  It is caused by what they are forced to bear witness to when they come home–a society, he says, “that is basically at war with itself” (cue the entire 2016 election cycle).  I found this line particularly stunning: “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it” (124).

Here’s the kicker–and this is the reason I absolutely need to talk with my own little tribe about this book–he seems to be suggesting that there is no way out of our self-interested, depressive mess of a society except through catastrophe.  He’s not saying that our self-interest is going to lead to catastrophe (though I suppose that is also true); he is arguing that only a genuine disaster can save us from ourselves.  Only a huge catastrophe could stimulate the kind of “social resilience” that will make us all healthy again.  He seems to want it.

I gotta say, he’s not wrong about the “community of sufferers” thing.  Writing about grief as I am these days, I am reminded again and again of how I never felt more strangely alive than when my daughter was dying.  It was unutterably sad, but I also remember those last weeks of Claire’s short life as a kind of bubble in which I felt the closest I have ever felt to other human beings.  It was a high price to pay for social cohesion, though, and I would like to believe that there are less expensive options than catastrophe for bringing us together and giving us a purpose.  But maybe there aren’t.

About three-quarters of the way into Tribe, I began a reading another book, one that I’ve wanted to read for some time: Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  The two of them together on the desk in front of me are bit like Jack Sprat and his wife: Tribe is a (deceivingly) slim volume, more of a long-form essay; The Noonday Demon is at least ten times its length, clocking in at an impressive 676 pages.


Actually, this tells the story a little bit better (14 pt font, meet 10 pt font):


Yet they are oddly compatible partners.

I’m only about a hundred pages in to the Solomon, but it’s already clear that where Junger is all war journalist tough-exterior-disguising-a-beating-heart macho (check out the author photo if you want confirmation of that characterization:

junger-photo) Solomon is just the heart laid bare.  Check out the first two sentences of the book:

“Depression is the flaw in love.  To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”


But what I really want to quote is the last paragraph of that same first chapter.  It’s what Junger is saying–in a way, it’s his entire argument–but rendered in the voice of a poet, a poet who knows both suffering and the tragic mutation of suffering that is depression:

“It is possible (though for the time being unlikely) that, through chemical manipulation, we might locate, control, and eliminate the brain’s circuitry of suffering.  I hope we will never do it.  To take it away would be to flatten out experience, to impinge on a complexity more valuable than any of its component parts are agonizing.  If I could see the world in nine dimensions, I’d pay a high price to do it.  I would live forever in the haze of sorrow rather than give up the capacity for pain.  But pain is not acute depression; one loves and is loved in great pain, and one is alive in the experience of it.  It is the walking-death quality of depression that I have tried to eliminate from my life; it is as artillery against that extinction that this book is written.”

I’m going to end there.  There will be more to say about the Solomon, but first there’s more to read.  Thank goodness.


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