John 15:12-13: Psalm 22:1-2
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 29, 2016
I must confess that I have always been both puzzled by and envious of vets – puzzled by their desire to band together after their service, to share their stories, and envious of their loyalty to each other. I was in the Navy for a short time during Vietnam and received an honorable discharge for medical reasons, and was told because of my severe migraines that – in so many words – they did not want me flying their aircraft. After the bulletin was printed for today, I changed my sermon because I found a new book this week by Sebastian Junger, the journalist who wrote, The Perfect Storm. The book is entitled, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, and he introduces it this way:
The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping-somewhat irresponsibly for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity. I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice?
Those kinds of tests clearly weren’t going to happen in my hometown, but putting myself in a situation where I had very little control- like hitchhiking across the country- seemed like a decent substitute. That’s how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October, 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket.
In my pack I had a tent and sleeping bag, a set of aluminum cookpots, and a Swedish-made camping stove that ran on gasoline and had to be pressurized with a thumb pump. That and a week’s worth of food was all I had with me outside Gillette, Wyoming, that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the on-ramp from town.
From a distance I could see that he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. I took my hands out of my pockets and turned to face him. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn’t look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed.
“California,” I said. He nodded.
“How much food do you got?” he asked.
I thought about this. I had plenty of food-along with all the rest of my gear- and he obviously didn’t have much. I’d give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn’t want to get robbed, and that’s what seemed was about to happen.
“Oh, I just got a little cheese,” I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head.
“You can’t get to California on just a little cheese,” he said. “You need more than that.”
The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three miles to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fill-in work. Some days they did, some days they didn’t, and this was one of the days that they didn’t. “So I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his black lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. The food had probably come from a local church. I had no choice but to take it.
I thanked him and put the food in my pack for later and wished him luck. Then he turned and made his way back down the on-ramp toward Gillette.
I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life. He’d been generous, yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I’ll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe.
This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning.
It’s about why – for many people – war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.
It’s time for that to end.
He goes on to say that we all need three things in order to feel contentment in life: we need to feel competent at what we do; we need to feel authentic in the way we live our lives; and we need to feel connected with others. Junger then described the work of Charles Fritz.
During WWII, Charles Fritz studied the effect of the blitz, the bombing of England by Germany, on the English people. Fritz found that disasters thrust people back into a more ancient way of relating. Disasters, he said, created a “community of sufferers” that allowed people to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people came together to face a threat, Fritz found, class differences were temporarily erased, income disparities became irrelevant, race was overlooked, and individuals were assessed simply by what they were willing to do for the group.
Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of traumatic stress studies at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC described what young returning vets go through: “For most people in combat, their experiences range from the best of times to the worst of times. It’s the most important thing someone has ever done – especially since these people are so young when they go in – and it’s probably the first time they’ve ever been free, completely, of societal constraints. They’re going to miss being entrenched in this defining world.”
Junger says that the most important thing for veterans to be able to transition back into society is for them to feel that they’re just as necessary and productive back in society as they were on the battlefield. He says that a society that has always understood this is the Iroquois. Iroquois warriors would return to hunt and fish and participate as full members in all the aspects of everyday life.
Junger then describes a key ingredient for societies that do well at helping veterans return to society:
Something called “social resilience”, meaning resource sharing and broad wealth distribution, are key ingredients in a society’s ability to recover from hardship. And societies that rank high on these things – such as kibbutz settlements in Israel provide soldiers with a significantly stronger buffer against PTSD than societies that do not have these characteristics.
In fact, social resilience is an even better predictor of trauma recovery than the level of resilience of the person himself.
Unfortunately, for the past decade American soldiers have returned to a country that displays many indicators of low social resilience. Resources are not shared equally, a quarter of children live in poverty, jobs are hard to get, and minimum wage is almost impossible to live on. Instead of being able to work and contribute to society – a highly therapeutic thing to do – a large percentage of veterans are just offered lifelong disability payments.
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. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.
It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.
Junger says that our society has lost what is most important, our willingness to come together, to acknowledge that we are, indeed, a tribe. He says: “Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you. That is the position American soldiers have been in for the past decade and a half.”
It seems to me that, on this Memorial Day weekend, we have an opportunity to remember those who did not come back, those who gave up their life for all of us. But let us also consider those who came back, whose desire to do something important, to contribute to our society– does not end with their military service, but it is an on-going desire, a need even– to make a difference with their own life away from the battlefield as a member of “our tribe.”
So let us each expand our understanding of who is a member of “our tribe,” and how we might continue to create a society where these veterans have a real chance to continue to contribute. This church family exhibits all of the best characteristics of a tribe. So let us, each in our own way, welcome those who return from trauma in ways that enables them to continue to feel useful, significant, and able to contribute to the well-being of this community and our world.
And when we experience our own trauma, those life experiences that change us deeply, may we find an acceptance, a support, and an encouragement here to find our own way, and to use even our trauma to make this a better world.