The “Tribe” in Wilderness Programs

I recently finished Sebastian Junger’s excellent book “Tribe” in it Junger argues that:

“We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding-“Tribes.”

Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) has spent roughly twenty years writing about war and the psychological aspects of war. Tribe is his last book on the subject. He set out to write about Veterans returning home and through his research concluded that belonging and a sense of common direction are crucial to a society.

As I read the book, I could not help but see the parallels with Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare i.e. “Wilderness Programs” and Junger’s hypothesis. The author argues that while many soldiers suffer from PTSD due their experiences in war, they also suffer when they return from war due to the loss of their Tribe. These soldiers feel disconnected and labeled as victims of trauma and often view themselves as “outsiders” from society. This is in part because our current society does not value community. Our youth today often feel the same way.

Junger explains that history has numerous examples of people striving for community, from settlers in the west joining Native American tribes and shunning the “modern” world, to Londoners collaborating and unifying during the German Bombing in WWII.

Therapeutic Wilderness Programs (in general) operate on the same principal; that is, community, common purpose, care and simplicity. The group hierarchy is fluid and communal, not totalitarian. It is designed so each person can be valued for his or her own unique contributions. This is very similar to our anthropological history. I believe there is a latent, genetic comfort level with this dynamic. I have met so many young people who look back on their wilderness experience as the happiest time of their lives. In fact they often want to go back to their group and experience their “Tribe” again.

When parents are considering sending their child to a Wilderness Program, they often share with me some version of this statement, “we have given him/her everything he/she ever wanted, why aren’t they happy?” The answer is that people don’t crave things instead they crave belonging. They desire human connection, not play-stations, or new clothes. They also want to know that their efforts benefit others. When we take away our children’s opportunity to help others (through wealth or lack of community connection) we rob them of one of the most basal human needs… to be needed. Wealth allows us to not need community, and consequently we can be alone. This is often the worst thing for our soul.

“Tribe” explores the above dynamic in detail. I encourage anyone who is interested in sociology or the human condition to read this very enlightening book.