Several years ago, I read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Two stories made a lasting impression. The first involves the intersection of Native American and European culture in Colonial America:
“’When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs,’ Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1753, ‘… if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.’”
On the other hand, Franklin continued, white captives who came back to colonial society after spending time with the Indians were almost impossible to keep home “‘…and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.’”[i]
Junger tells of one colonial woman who was captured by Native people and lived with them, learning their language and customs, before being returned to her husband on his farm. With the native people, she had spent her day in shared labor and activity with the other women, cooperating for the benefit of the community. Back on their farm, she was alone all day in their cabin as her husband, also alone, worked the land. She sank into depression.
The second involves the experience of Londoners during the bombing “Blitz” in World War 2:
“Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down. Emergency services in London reported an average of only two cases of ‘bomb neuroses’ a week. Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.”[ii] Crime rates decreased dramatically, as did suicide. People in bomb shelters began to form self-regulating and egalitarian societies; class status was largely ignored. Even after being bombed for months, the spirit of the people remained resolute, united, and determined.
Junger had seen this dynamic as a war correspondent, first in Bosnia and later embedded in an Army platoon in Afghanistan (documented in the film, Retrepo). After returning home, he sought to understand why so many vets were having difficulty adapting to civilian life. He concluded that a leading factor was the loss of the intense social bond and shared purpose they had experienced. Back in the U.S., most people were consumed with their own individual lives which seemed shallow by comparison.
What these stories have in common is the power of human community to form bonds of mutual care and respect that become more important than individual accomplishment or status, particularly in times of great challenge. (This is a dynamic we see clearly in the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people, an inspirational example for us all.)
Last week I wrote about the difference between the words “religion” and “spirituality”, noting the root of the first is ligia, from which the word “ligament” comes from. In our age, the freedom to pursue our own spirituality and the seeming lack of relevance in many religious institutions has led us away from those “ligaments” which once created bonds of shared purpose and belonging. This shift extends to many social institutions.[iii] We are free, but disconnected.
During the two years of the COVID pandemic, our instincts for facing challenges together were activated. We had to be disciplined about when we went shopping. We had to cut down on travel and in-person gatherings. We became reluctant but capable Zoom-sters. Spontaneous networks of mutual care arose in many neighborhoods and people who had lived alone were often cared for. Like most of us, I didn’t like the restrictions but understood why they were necessary; the fact that we were all in this together gave the sacrifices meaning.
In the fall of 1986, I had just become the solo pastor of a small congregation in Wapato, Washington, population 3,000. I was told they put on a turkey dinner for the community every November. The event went back to the Depression years when the church needed a new roof and raised the funds with the help of neighbors. The tradition had continued ever since with the proceeds benefitting local projects. They often served hundreds of people in one night. The church had an ample kitchen but not large enough for the demand, so the members cooked the turkeys and dessert in their own homes.
I remember Jeannie, the woman in charge that year, approaching me saying she’d be giving me the directions for cooking the turkey and making the apple crisp desert.
“Sure, I’ll get back to you and let you know if we can do that,” I said.
“No, Steve,” she said with a smile. “This is not optional. Everyone participates.”
I was a suburban guy, accustomed to my freedom, and stunned to be told what to do. But, like everyone else, we cooked our turkey and the apple crisp — strictly following the provided recipes — and delivered them at the appointed time. Later that evening, I completed my duties doing dishes, the entry-level position for new pastors.
We served 800 people that night. And when we gathered on Sunday there was a palpable sense of joy, pride, and connection. We’d been bound, and it was good.
As we know, many of our former social bonds have disappeared. They’ve been replaced, to some degree, by social media groups. These have the advantage of being able to respond instantly to a crisis or need – but don’t require the same discipline.
Strong social bonds can have a shadow side: stifling individual freedom and nurturing a narrow kind of tribalism that exalts our own group and demonizes others. We need to be thoughtful about our allegiances and their consequences.
But we also need to appreciate the power within us to form bonds of mutual care and respect that become more important than individual accomplishment or status, particularly in times of great challenge. These are the times that can bring out the best in us.
Image: Model of Biological System created by the Integrative Computational Network Biology Project, Barcelona Supercomputing Center
[i] Junger, Sebastian; Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging; pg. 3
[ii] Junger, pg. 47
[iii] The classic study is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, 2001