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What We Need to Live Well (the Sunday post) January 18, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Dharma, Faith, First Nations, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Loss, Love, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Tragedy, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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*** TRIGGER WARNING: This post references mental health issues and connected traumas. There are no graphic descriptions. ***


“Wish not so much to live long as to live well.”


– quoted from a “Maxim” for August 1738 in Poor Richard’s Almanack by “Richard Saunders” and “Bridget Saunders” (a. k. a. Benjamin Franklin)

Being among the living is primarily a matter of science, but what does it mean to “live well?” What did Benjamin Franklin, who was born today in 1706 (when going by the Gregorian calendar), mean by that very basic principle? To answer those questions we most go a little deeper into the meaning of wellness and a little deeper into the life and times of “the First American.”

Nowadays, when people think of wellness or well-being, they think of physical and mental health – and Franklin would have included that in his statement. However, the general meaning of “well” and, therefore the quality of wellness, is something that is good (meaning it has purpose and is fulfilling its purpose); complete; and effective. As a polymath – not to mention a writer, printer, philosopher, and politician – Benjamin Franklin would have been very familiar with all of these meanings and connotations. More importantly, his life is a testament to the value of living well.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts Bay, English America, Benjamin Franklin was also a statesman, diplomat, a postmaster, scientist, inventor, and humorist. He was one of the Founding Fathers; served as the first US Ambassador to France; and created Poor Richard’s Almanack. He also founded Philadelphia’s first fire department, the Library Company, the University of Pennsylvania, and many other institutions that focused on how people could serve one another, be of use to one another.

“When you’re good to others, you are best to yourself.”


– #630 quoted from Poor Richard’s Almanack (1748) by “Richard Saunders” and “Bridget Saunders” (a. k. a. Benjamin Franklin)

Somehow despite everything else he was doing, Benjamin Franklin was still able to find time to experiment and observe life around him. His infamous kite-flying-in-a-storm experiment (which possible occurred in the summer of 1752) was a little more complicated than it is often depicted in paintings and other dramatic medium, because he was aware that there was a potential risk. Thomas-François Dalibard had conducted a similar experiment in France (on May 10, 1752) and Franklin himself reported experiencing some “numbness” when dealing with electricity. Later scientists would electrocute themselves while trying to recreate the efforts of Dalibard and Franklin; however, Franklin’s work specifically emphasized the importance of being grounded. His work also changed the way people understood and categorized different charges (i.e., positive and negative).

He was once critical of himself because, as he wrote, his experiments were “able to produce nothing in this way of use to Mankind.” Yet, he stayed curious, kept trying new things and eventually invented many things that made life easier for people; including the lightening rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. While these things all served a purpose and made life easier, maybe even more efficient, they didn’t (in and of themselves) help others live well – when living well is related to purpose and, therefore, related to others.

“Though they have few but natural wants and those easily supplied. But with us are infinite Artificial wants, no less craving than those of Nature, and much more difficult to satisfy….”


– quoted from the “Hardwicke Papers” copy of a letter addressed to Peter Collinson dated “Philadelphia May 9th, 1753” and signed “B: Franklin”


“The findings are in keeping with something 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 considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.”


– quoted from Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Ultimately, once we establish the meaning of the living well, the real question we must ask ourselves is. “What do we need to live well?” Whenever we’re addressing life “needs,” I find that we sneak a whole lot of “wants” and desire into the mix. These are what Benjamin Franklin would classify as “Artificial” and that would fall into the category of “extrinsic” values, according to the definition Sebastian Junger uses in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which is a discussion on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Born today in 1962, in Belmont, Massachusetts (give or take 10 miles from Benjamin Franklin was born), Sebastian Junger is a journalist and student of anthropology, whose parents immigrated to the United States, in part, to escape persecution during World War II. From The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea to Fire and from documentaries like Restrepo and The Last Patrol, Junger’s work has focused on the life of individuals experiencing war, trauma, and death. But, one of the common elements in his work – an element that is sometimes overlooked in the face of so much adventure, adrenaline, and danger – is camaraderie, friendship, and tribalism; elements that became the primary focus when he started researching PTSD.  

“As wealth goes up in a society, the suicide rate goes up not down. If you live in modern society you are up to 8 times more likely to suffer from depression, in your lifetime, than if you live in a poor, agrarian society. Modern society has probably produced the highest rates of suicide and depression and anxiety and loneliness and child abuse ever, in human history.”


– quoted from a June 10, 2016 TEDTalk entitled “Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war” by Sebastian Junger


“…they visit us frequently, and see the advantages that Arts, Sciences, and compact Society procure us, they are not deficient in natural understanding and yet they have never shewn any Inclination to change their manner of life for ours, or to learn any of our Arts; When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return, and that this is not natural [to them] merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”


– quoted from the “Hardwicke Papers” copy of a letter addressed to Peter Collinson dated “Philadelphia May 9th, 1753” and signed “B: Franklin”


In Tribe, Sebastian Junger actually quotes part of Benjamin Franklin’s letter to Peter Collinson and comes to similar conclusions: that there is something missing from Western society – or, what Junger sometimes refers to as “modern society” – and that something is sense of belonging; a place for all and a purpose for all. Additionally, he proposes that not only is “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” a failure in nomenclature, but that the name itself places the emphasis on the wrong part of people’s experience. His work suggests that it is not the traumatic experience that is a problem – nor is it the person experiencing the mental health issue: the problem is the “post” part; the problem is modern society and what we’re lacking.

Junger doesn’t rely on Franklin’s nearly 300-old observations. Instead, he builds his case using evidence throughout history – and some of the most compelling evidence is about what doesn’t happen, despite trauma. For instance, he describes how different reintegration into society is for Israeli veterans who return to a community where people understand what they have experienced, because military service is part of life. The result of people knowing where you’re coming from and what you’ve experienced? A substantially lower suicide rate. More to the point, a 1% suicide rate among Israeli veterans (which is basically the whole country) versus the United States where the overall rate is higher and 13.5% of all adult suicides are committed by veterans (even though veterans only making about 7.9% of the adult population).

Junger also makes note of the decrease in reported violence, suicide, depression, and other mental health issues when the United Kingdom was experiencing the Blitz during World War II and a similar decrease in New York City after 9/11 – the latter example even applying to combat-experienced veterans who had previously been diagnosed with PTSD. Junger states in a 2016 TedTalk, “The reason is that if you traumatize an entire society, we don’t fall apart and turn on one another; we come together, we unify. Basically, we tribalize.”

“War is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of.”


– quoted from War by Sebastian Junger


“What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”


– quoted from Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger


I’m not a veteran, nor am I an expert on PTSD. So, I can only say that from a layperson’s perspective Sebastian Junger’s work (overall) frames the trauma and challenges of war as well as the trauma and challenges of reintegrating into society. I also think he does a good job of highlighting the physical-mental-emotional ways in which humans cope with danger (and perceived danger) as well as pointing to elements that predispose or making someone more vulnerable to long-term, chronic traumatic stress (such as childhood abuse and trauma, low education, and psychiatric disorders in their family). As a layperson, I feel like he includes the trauma of combat in the discussion. However, his critics disagree.

Junger’s critics (with regard to Tribe) include veterans as well as people who specifically and professionally deal with PTSD and veterans. Those critics include United States Marine Corps Captain Matthew Hoh, whose service to the country includes active duty in Iraq (2006 – 2007) and with the State Department in Iraq (2004 – 2005) and Afghanistan (2009). He has been diagnosed with PTSD, a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and depression – and has overcome suicidal thoughts and issues with alcohol. Additionally, even after he resigned from the State Department, in protest of the escalation in Afghanistan, he continues to combine his experience with his skills as a writer in order to better inform the general public and to better inform policy. He seems to strive, as Benjamin Franklin encouraged, “to live well.”

In a 2016 book review of Tribe, Captain Hoh not only criticized Junger’s premise; he also claimed that Junger did a disservice to veterans by downplaying the role of combat-related trauma. He specifically cited research from the National Center for Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah indicating a direct correlation between suicide and combat related to veterans who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The evidence – including the examples of a Iraq and Afghan veterans without combat experience having a suicide rate “three to four times that of their civilian peers” and a single battalion (with combat experience) having a suicide rate that was “14 times higher than their civilian peers” – is as staggering as it shocking. It is interesting to note that one of Captain Matthew Hoh’s chief concerns is also one of Sebastian Junger’s chief concerns: that part of the big picture needs to be better understanding of what veterans endure.

“[Tribe] is a very popular book, that has received an enormous amount of media attention, and unfortunately, it is doing a great degree of harm by misinforming people about the nature, magnitude, and reality of PTSD for America’s veterans. It’s hard enough to get people to understand what the guys went through over there and what they are going through at home, let alone if people are misinformed.”


– quoted from a “Best Defense” book review entitled, “Junger’s new book ‘Tribe’ is giving the public exactly the wrong idea about PTSD” by Matthew Hoh (under the byline of Thomas E. Ricks, on foreignpolicy.com, June 15, 2016)


Over this last year, I have repeatedly compared our shared experiences (dealing with the pandemic and civil unrest) to being on a sinking ship. In The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, Sebastian Junger, writing about the men who lived, worked, and died aboard the Andrea Gail asked, “How do men act on a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whisky? Do they cry?” I think, moving forward, that we have to ask ourselves – really look at ourselves – as we experience this shared trauma. I think this is especially true if we want to survive not only the collective trauma, but also what happens afterwards… the “post.”

For myself, I can definitely attest to a reluctance to go outside where I might be exposed to racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, and all the other –isms and –phobias (let alone corona virus) during a time when so many people seem predisposed to express their discontent viscerally and violently. I have considered, on more than one occasion, what happens when society really starts to open back up and we all start working towards reintegration. I have also contemplated the fact that, just like in other traumatic situations, people have not been impacted equally – so, some will have a harder time coming back together. And, I wonder, how we can help each other come back together given all the fear and differences that separate us.

“We evolved as animals, as primates, to survive periods of danger and if your life has been in danger you want to react to unfamiliar noises. You want to sleep lightly, wake up easily. You want to have nightmares and flashbacks of the thing that could kill you. You want to be angry because it makes you predisposed to fight; or depressed, because it keeps you out of circulation a little bit: keeps you safe…. About 20% of people, however, wind up with chronic, long term PTSD. They are not adapted to temporary danger; they are maladapted for everyday life – unless they get help.”


– quoted from a June 10, 2016 TEDTalk entitled “Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war” by Sebastian Junger  


“If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity….”


– quoted from Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger


“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. It is obvious to me this group is prepared to govern.”


– quoted from What Really Happened? – A Series of humor essays describing “historical” events  by K. Lenart (describing a fictionalized 1789 speech to the First United States Congress (at Federal Hall in New York City) by Benjamin Franklin)


Sunday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.


 “Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good.”


– #408 quoted from Poor Richard’s Almanack (1748) byRichard Saunders” and “Bridget Saunders” (a. k. a. Benjamin Franklin)


“Haste makes Waste.”


– #184 quoted from Poor Richard’s Almanack (1753) byRichard Saunders” and “Bridget Saunders” (a. k. a. Benjamin Franklin)

If you are thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call the TALK line if you are struggling with addiction or involved in an abusive relationship. The Lifeline network is free, confidential, and available to all 24/7. YOU CAN TALK ABOUT ANYTHING.