Importance of Peer Groups and Young Adults

I have just finished reading the book Tribe.  The author, Sebastian Junger, makes the key point that we, as a species, were made to live in community with each other.  He spent much of his adult life in the military and quasi-military operations that put his life and others’ lives in danger.  It would seem that these time periods when people’s lives were in danger would be filled with stress and not times that they would remember as positive.  To the contrary, what Junger tells us is that people can feel more alive and more connected during these episodes.  If they feel a common bond and feel they were doing something meaningful and important, then these times are actually very positive, pivotal experiences!

He makes the point that for thousands of years, we humans lived in close proximity and community to others in a tribe.  Not only were they in community, but also they depended on putting community above self to survive.  Is this one reason that wilderness therapy works so well?  I think about the times that I go hiking in the wilderness with a few close friends or go paddling in marshes and rivers.  (I admit this is quite different from fighting a war, but occasionally we get into tense situations that force us to trust and depend on one another to get through them.) What I find is that when I get away from screens and get out in the woods or water for more than 2 days, I slow down and begin to notice the world around me in a different way.  I think about our new educational consultant and colleague, Karyn Kaminski.  She spent 4 years working as a guide at Philmont, a boy scout camp with thousands of acres.  Then she spent another 8 years working as a wilderness field guide at Blue Ridge Wilderness (at that time Second Nature Wilderness).  So, I suspect there was something about being in nature and being in a tribe-like atmosphere that drew her to this work.

Today, more and more of our young adults find themselves isolated, alone, frustrated with lack of meaning, lack of a job, and lack of a peer group or “tribe”.  Are we as a species made to live in community?  In a Tribe? 

Here is my favorite quote from the book:  Junger is discussing what we need as human beings and mentions a theory called “self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content:  they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives, and they need to feel connected to others.  These values are “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money, and status.”  This idea reminds me of the work of Frederick Herzberg.  He believed that some factors in the workplace were motivators, such as challenging work, recognition for achievement, responsibility, opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision-making, and a sense of importance to the organization, which give satisfaction.  However, only when the safety and belonging needs are met can these higher needs become motivators.

Junger goes on to say that when people get back from war and war zones, it is important that they feel valued and appreciated for their wartime efforts and then are also allowed to reincorporate back into the existing culture without drawing attention to the difficulties or trauma experienced in the wartime efforts.  He says that when soldiers are told they are victims and have PTSD, they often feel they are sick/unhealthy and then have more difficulty transitioning back into non wartime cultures.  Things can go better when they can share the transition with others “in their tribe.” Junger is not minimizing or diminishing the need for people who are experiencing severe PTSD symptoms to get help; what he is saying is that even those who experience mild to no symptoms also need to have a quick, positive transition.

The biggest “take away” from this book was that we as a species are have a long evolutionary history of surviving and thriving in communities and groups. Our modern society is driven by rapid cultural and technological changes that are, in many ways, is not life affirming.  I would assert that our adolescents and young adults naturally form “tribes,” and we need to understand that this activity is part of the development process and is healthy behavior.  Of course, there are negative tribes, that can be destructive, like gangs, but the need to connect and identify oneself with a group is part of our make-up and something we all have a built-in desire and propensity for as part of the human race.

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