“Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—,” writes war journalist Sebastian Junger in a June 2015 Vanity Fair article, “the individual lifestyles that those technologies spawn may be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.” Junger’s article, entitled, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,” theorizes in part that for many war veterans, a substantial part of their trauma comes not from the experience of war, but from re-entering society after war. Whereas in war soldiers experience an intense camaraderie with others out of necessity, modern American culture in particular discourages such connection, promoting instead a lifestyle of isolation perpetuated in part by advances in technology and digital distraction.
To elaborate on the differences between a person’s experiences serving in war and in every day modern American culture, Junger breaks it down to the chemical level. He points out that war is reflective of humankind’s evolutionary development around notions of fight-or-flight survival, writing that behaviors “like problem solving, cooperation, and inter-group competition are still rewarded by bumps of dopamine and other hormones into our system.” Junger continues, “Group affiliation and cooperation were clearly adaptive because…they trigger a surge in levels of a neuropeptide called oxytocin. Not only does oxytocin create a glow of well-being in people, it promotes greater levels of trust and bonding.” So when soldiers return to society after an extended experience of intense group affiliation through their service, they actually experience what Junger describes as “a terrific oxytocin withdrawal.”
Junger is quick to argue that the problem of such withdrawal begins not with the “high” of war, but with the culture of isolation and lack of meaning-making in the modern American homefront. He writes about how from infancy onward, countless children in our culture experience a fundamental lack of touch, the taproot of having a sense of connection, and of releasing oxytocin. Without a most basic feeling of being connected, children turn to substitutes that can never fully satisfy their need for human connection. Similarly, Junger states that often young people join the military because they have not yet been able to find significant purpose or meaning in their communities. He points especially to the statistical correlation between increased urban living and an increased rate of depression. One small sample exception to this American trend are rural Amish communities, which have “completely resisted modernization,” and so are still dependent on the same group affiliation and cooperation that their ancestors relied on and that soldiers continue to rely on, on the battlefield.
Junger concludes his article with a bold suggestion that, “Given the profound alienation that afflicts modern society, when combat vets say that they want to go back to war, they may be having an entirely healthy response to the perceived emptiness of modern life.”
The question then arises, how do we create a culture of meaning for our veterans, as well as for those of us perhaps still under the influence of culturally perpetuated isolation? Revisiting earlier entries in this blog series, the answers lie at least partly in the ceremony and rituals people are intentionally creating for veterans. But it also lies in taking our phones and tablets out of our hands, and reaching those same hands, palms open and free, out to others. It means creating meaningful projects that bring people together. It means creating meaningful, purposeful lives both in society at large and within our particular communities.
What programs exist in your community that encourage collaboration, problem solving, healthy competition, and meaning-making? How do those programs enrich the lives of both veterans and ordinary citizens? If your community lacks such programs, projects, ceremonies, or rituals, what can you do to create something so that none of us has to rely on war to feel fully alive?
Eli Addison, QMHA, is an individual continually seeking to better understand the human experience and explore our diversity. He serves as Veterans Housing Specialist at Medicine Wheel Recovery Services. His passion and careful persistence drive his advocacy and support for those in need.
Eliza Galaher, QMHA, has lived all over the country, especially the Northeast and the Southwest, working in publishing, education, liberal religious ministry, and many others. She is back in her native Oregon, serving as a Veterans Housing Specialist at Medicine Wheel. Addiction and recovery have always been a part of her life and she now offers her lived experience in service to all seeking healing.