I recently listened to an interesting podcast with the co-director of the war documentary “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger, who talked about his experience filming in Korengal valley, one of the most active combat zones during the height of the Afghan war. His most salient feeling and observation from living with a close-knit group of army infantry was the sense of intense communal brotherhood. Despite (and probably due to) the incredible danger of living in a constant life-or-death situation, these men grew closer to each other than would have been possible in a stress-free environment. Junger described how more often than not, soldiers returning home from combat become depressed, not necessarily because of trauma, but because of losing a sense of purposeful community. Back in the heat of battle, they existed in a community of individuals who viscerally relied on each other for survival and were united towards a cohesive goal, but in the nerfed safety and complacency of America, they suddenly lost a sense of meaning. A similar phenomenon, he noted, was observed in post-hurricane New Orleans, where people would sometimes express a nostalgia for the period of devastation, but concurrent communal bonding, that occurred during the storm.
It seems that human beings are designed to exist under a certain amount of stress, which if completely removed, can result in imbalances in our psyche. Our ancestors lived in survival conditions much harsher than our own, surviving through the resiliency of social connection, helping each other when times were tough. Perhaps the most poignant ability that sets ourselves apart from other animals is not our intelligence, but our incredible sociality. Two brains are better than one, after all. You would think that living in a city like Los Angeles, where millions of souls live in such proximity to one another, that this sense of community would be stronger than ever. But sadly, the opposite is true. Currently, rates of depression, loneliness, anxiety, and suicide are at record highs, despite our ever more “connected” digital networks.
I think that the reasons for this are fairly straightforward. Our social networks (not the digital kind), have become completely disintegrated. Traditionally, people lived in more or less self-sufficient communities of about 50-150 people (or a few hundred in larger villages), where every individual was needed, relied on, valued, and appreciated. Living in such an interdependent community, you served a very important function, whatever it may have been. People needed you, and you needed them. You were all imbued with the same sense of meaning and purpose; it might have been spiritual and lofty, or perhaps simply practical, but it was shared. Each individual living in such a community certainly felt a deep sense of well-being, even if there were significant external challenges. In fact, these challenges may have been a crucial component for health. Even if this community was not fighting off bears, arctic temperatures, or chronic disease in order to survive, it still would have been intimately connected to and involved with the earth and the cycles of nature which supported it.
Nowadays we have managed to construct a world in which none of that is necessary in order for your physical organism to continue living. One no longer needs to rely on family, friends, and neighbors in order to eat, obtain shelter, or provide any number of basic living necessities. One can rely on completely externalized, hidden systems of support that require only a bare minimum of contact with other human beings. And if you are clever enough to generate some income through the internet, you don’t even need to leave your apartment. Living in this manner, I doubt that people can feel a deep sense of well-being or any kind of true meaning in life. No wonder our society faces an epidemic of mental illness…
Indeed, the happiest moments of my life have been when I felt I was a valuable part of some community. It is often hard to prioritize friends and family over such apparently important things as knowledge, money, or self-improvement, but these are truly secondary. The Blue Zones, a group of five geo-ethnic populations around the world with the longest lived people on the planet, share a few key components for health and well-being. A strong sense of purposeful community is one of them. Gardening is another. Regular combat stress thankfully is not :). Local community self-reliance through sustainable agriculture, a sense of interconnected purpose or meaning, and deep social connection is the future of humanity. Our technological toys may not need to be disposed of completely, and the the dream of a globally connected society through them may still be salvageable, but without local community, it will be impossible.