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Now That's a Great Story
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Episode 24: When Bad Things are Good Things

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


Hello and welcome to the after show for Now That's a Great Story. On Monday, Sebastian Junger came on, talked about Tribe. Today I wanted to talk about a couple of things that he discussed that are applicable to almost anyone's life regardless of whether they've served in war zones as Sebastian has or anything else. One of the reasons that Tribe influenced me and affected me is the egalitarian idea that comes out of it. Our desire to give back is part of the way that we are wired; that helping others actually helps us. This is something that you see in Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning when he talks about how the purpose of life is to love and how you shouldn't go searching for happiness. Because happiness ensues from the work and the deeds that you do. And I really have found this to be true in my own life to the sense that we are all wired to help each other; that we derive great pleasure from actually helping each other.


A few years back I wanted to start to volunteer more but I just was thinking I didn't have the time to do it. Then I was listening to another podcast, I think, was Brian Koppelman who had on… memory serves, he had on Tony Robbins of all people and Tony was saying how the important thing is to do the act, and then you will almost find the justification for it later. And, you know, this is true and if you're starting a small business or if, in my case, I was just, like, well, I wanted to start to volunteer more because I saw, I'm not… Sebastian laid out on Monday how he has many faults with both Republicans and Democrats, I do too. I am in no way a supporter of President Trump and view myself as a Democrat, and I wanted to volunteer in part because the hateful things that Trump was saying and the actions he was taking as president, in my own small way I wanted to do something to sort of counteract that; to be a protest of action rather than just, you know, saying something online or something. And this idea that I heard, that if you can, if you just do the act you end up sort of mentally justifying it, well, it led me to just one day to start volunteering at a at a soup kitchen in downtown Hartford. I live too far from Hartford, and it ultimately led me to help develop this two-day seminar that tried to show all the ways in which Trump's words and actions have begun to oppress Muslims in particular. 


Through these acts I found that it was completely true. I found that the only thing to do in fact is to try to find ways to volunteer because those were often some of the happiest and most fulfilling hours of my week. And I realized that saying this out loud, it can come off as super grating because nothing is worse than the dogooder who talks about his good deeds. But the point really was that none of this volunteerism that I began to do week after week, if I'm being honest, it wasn't for the people I was helping, it was for me, it made me feel useful and like I have contributed something to society. 


And so years later when I was reading… was actually around that time that I was reading Tribe, and it just resonated with me so much this egalitarian, nature of trying to help others because I had seen it so much in my own life. Another reason I love Tribe was just the resiliency and solidarity on display. The soldiers who missed war because what they really missed was the Brotherhood among soldiers. The Londoners who found in esprit de cors and banding together and basements and waiting out the Blitz game, and in the 80s, who also banded together, and fought for their dignity during the AIDS epidemic. Sebastian talks about the ways in which we are actually very resilient and it is in those really terrible moments that we actually find our greatest strength and even joy. And to hear later about how our soldiers missed the war because they missed the Brotherhood, or civilians who'd lived through war actually missed the war because it allowed for the community to come together in a way that it hadn't before. 


Same thing of course with gay men, you know, Sebastian and I talked about a woman who had lived through cancer and actually missed the cancer because she missed being on the cancer ward. It's so counterintuitive to think that way but I think it's true as well and, again, like another reason why I love Tribe was because I've looked back on my life, and I found the same thing happening for me. 


Maybe one of the hardest days of my life came a couple weeks before my daughter was born. I went to work. It was a Monday. And I went into my boss's office and I found out that he was going to be laid off. I worked at Boston Magazine and he was being fired that very day and I couldn't believe it. And then the creative director was fired and then the online editor was fired. And then the food editor was fired and on and on it went. This was a staff of only about maybe 15 or so editorial employees and half of them were laid off that day. And as more and more people are being ushered into the HR office, I was thinking to myself, my God, if I lose my job, how am I going to be able to pay for anything that follows this? But here's the weird thing about that day: I had these really terrible questions in my head, and yet I was surprisingly calm about it. The thought I had was just, well, they probably won't fire me. I was thinking that logically because I was just basically middle management even though there were other people getting fired around me. But I kept thinking well they probably won't fire me today. And then when they didn't? That's when the anger set in, and the group of us that remained, we rallied around each other. We didn't understand why management had let everybody go. It didn't make any sense. And it became tribal in some sense. It became very much an us against them sort of situation. The work that we did was an attempt to make us happy not to please them.


That day was terrible, but in the weeks and months following I got really close with a lot of people that were still on the staff. And today more than a decade later, those are some of my best friends. And I think it's because we all endured that. And I think it's because while it wasn't a Blitz, while it wasn't a modern war zone, while we didn't all have a disease that didn't have a cure, we did have our own struggle, our own plight. And we all saw it together. And those months following the day in which half the staff was laid off, those months still stick out in my mind more than almost any other time in my career.


And what was funny is just a couple days ago, I heard from one of those guys. And he and I were had a discussion actually about Tribe and an academic fight broke out online, because he was arguing that Sebastian was misusing the word tribe and that was actually another word, and he recommended a couple of books that I should be reading. And I think, you know, his points may all be valid but I guess I would counter with, yeah, but the larger point is, look I'm in contact with you 10 years later and not with other people I've worked with over the years. First because you're a great guy, but also because we went through this thing together. It's something that I heard Elijah Cummings, the congressman who recently died, say which is that problems don't happen to you, problems happen for you. And they are actually a blessing. And I think that's an idea that Tribe is dealing with as well.


The music for Now That's a great Story comes from Jeff Willett. If you liked this episode please remember to rate and review it wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you would like an email from me that tries to distill the wisdom that I'm reading from other books that I don't even discuss on this podcast go to and sign up for my newsletter. I will be back Monday with another episode. Bye-bye.

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