When I heard the terrible news last week of the children and educators murdered in Connecticut, my response was probably similar to that of millions of Americans: first, an expression of horror and sorrow, followed by the distressed question, “Why does our country have so many madmen who shoot innocent people?” Many news organizations have confirmed my sense that killing sprees are becoming more common. While our national homicide rate has decreased dramatically over the last few decades, shooting rampages are increasing. Of course, any murder is beyond awful, but this strange type of violence is especially disturbing because the killer has no clear motive. Murdering an associate for money or revenge is one degree of horror; killing innocent strangers for personal gratification is another.
There’s no shortage of theories about why shooting sprees are trending upward. Some blame mental health problems. Some say a mass murderer’s notoriety inspires other madmen. Some blame the availability of automatic assault weapons, others the violent videogames that are popular among young people. My guess is all these things are factors, but I also believe there’s a broader reason that most are overlooking: the opportunity for profound loneliness that exists in modern civilizations like ours. Our vast population, immense freedom and unprecedented prosperity are real blessings, but they also present a danger not found in more primitive societies, the danger of socially falling through the cracks. From my vantage it seems that senseless violence such as the tragedy we are mourning today is related to the weakening of American communities. Too many Americans have only slight social bonds. More and more are experiencing life like corks bobbing on the surface of humanity, never immersed in real purpose or real connection.
This sort of existence is unnatural and uncomfortable because human beings are pack animals. We belong in tribes, and for most of history that is how people have lived, in small communities where families relied on each other for their very survival. Every person’s labor was valued, even children’s. Most people had no real choice over where they lived, with whom they lived and what they did all day. In these insular communities people were still abused, shamed, ostracized, even banished, but no one went unseen. In other words, there were challenges in getting along with one another, but it wasn’t a challenge to get to know one another.
The parameters of modern western societies are strikingly opposite: We can travel for thousands of miles without being asked where we’re going. We can spend a day rubbing shoulders with crowds of people and not recognize a single face. Increasingly, people are living alone. Many individuals can stay in bed all day without anyone noticing their absence. The old and the young struggle to connect; sometimes they don’t even see a reason to try. At school and at work our associates are usually kind, and sometimes they become lifelong friends; more often, though, they are in our lives one day and gone the next. Two people might spend years sharing an office or a factory floor, and then one loses the job or gains another, and the two never see or hear of each other again. Even families can dissolve without a trace when a couple divorces or siblings quarrel.
What is the antidote for this social fragmentation? Tribes: they can and do exist within modern civilization, and they’re our only sure protection from bleak loneliness. A tight-knit small town, a Jewish synagogue, a Protestant congregation, a Mormon ward, a Chinatown, a neighborhood of Mexican immigrants, a large family of three or four generations—these can function as tribes. A modern tribe is a group of people who spend significant time together, who form enduring bonds, who have common values and shared goals, who rejoice and mourn together. Tribes are more cooperative than competitive. When one member succeeds, the entire tribe feels proud. When one member falls down, the other members hardly consider the sacrifice in picking him up. In a tribe, no one is left without purpose because there are so many ways to strengthen the group.
At the core of one’s tribe is family, people tied together by biology or marriage, who love one another unconditionally. Surrounding that core is a community held together by location and shared background, usually ethnic or religious. The size of tribes is important. They must be large enough for each member to feel secure that many people understand and appreciate him and large enough to share the burden of raising children, caring for the elderly and recovering from disasters and tragedies. On the other hand, it must be small enough to be intimate and united. So what’s the magic number? I’d guess somewhere between 50 and 500 adults.
Children who grow up within a well-functioning tribe have a feeling of security, a strong identity and purpose. They have many teachers and mentors. They enjoy meaningful traditions and rich celebrations. They look forward to adulthood when they will make their elders proud by maintaining their cultural or religious heritage, by succeeding in their professions and leadership roles, by establishing lovely homes, by raising well-behaved children. Tribal obligations sometimes hold people back in their pursuit of professional and personal goals, but it’s the tribe that makes success meaningful in the first place. In the end, it’s not sustainable for a community to expect nothing of its most capable members; community is built around the strong protecting the weak, the middle-aged providing for the children and the elderly, around duty. In a tribe, the generations are tied together by duty and love.
In our modern economy, it’s difficult to avoid moving for schooling and work, which can weaken families and communities. A more troubling problem, though, is our highly individualistic, competitive, material, self-indulgent culture. People are increasingly choosing careers, hobbies and entertainment over family and community. They are choosing relationships and institutions that require almost nothing from them. They are replacing tribal cultures with pop cultures.
There are so many aspects and examples of this trend, that one could write volumes describing it. An apt one is the rise of mega churches. These churches have large, beautiful buildings, and they can put on an impressive worship service. Those in attendance enjoy the professional music and amenable preaching. At the end, they put a few bucks in the basket and go home. It’s an efficient way for ministers to dispense the gospel and for congregants to satisfy their obligation to God. But what kind of results can they get? Are people going to learn the gospel from a rock concert? Is a half-hour of preaching going to help them rise to the level of life that Jesus commanded? Mega churches accomplish good, but there’s no way they can do what a small, intimate congregation can do. Church is not just about hearing; it’s also about doing; it’s about forming a tribe of people who will bear one another’s burdens. We can’t bear one another’s burdens if we don’t know one another.
As I read news accounts of the Connecticut shootings last Sunday, I was struck that the interviewees knew so little about the murderer and his mother. No one could say how she made her living. One neighbor knew that she liked to garden; an acquaintance from her favorite bar knew she collected guns. A few people said they could tell she was struggling with a troubled son, but only that she did so with dignity. Where was her tribe? From the articles I read, it seemed she had none. Recently divorced, her ex-husband and other son lived far away.
Ultimately, the murderer is responsible for his own unthinkable actions, but I wonder whether this tragedy might have been averted if his parents had not divorced? Or what if his mother had a large extended family that had rallied to her help when she was left alone with a disturbed son? What if the murderer had been raised in a tight-knit neighborhood where he felt accepted and understood? What if his mother had joined a congregation that helped him transform from an outsider to an insider?
While politicians and activists tussle over gun laws and school security, let’s you and I use this special time of year to build and strengthen tribes. Let’s spend more time with extended family. Let’s find a church where people know our name. Let’s rediscover our ethnic roots so we can give our children something more meaningful than pop culture. And let’s be on the lookout for lonely souls whom we can welcome into our circles.