We can learn a lot about happiness, work, and community from the nomadic Kung tribe of the Kalahari Desert (South Africa).
According to a 1960’s study, described in Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Belonging and Homecoming, the Kung’s way of life has remained unchanged for thousands of years. They work an average of 12 hours each week, mostly hunting and gathering and distributing foods, and everyone receives an equitable share. Because they work together in groups and share the resources, there’s no need to work longer days. Surplus accumulation—owning more possessions than can be carried at a time—is kept to a minimum, so there’s no significant gap between rich and poor and virtually no hunger.
A typical Kung tribe includes about 50 adults, all united by a shared history, lifestyle, and purpose. (When a tribe becomes too large for the members to adequately care and provide for each other, they will multiply into two or more tribes, and spread out across different desert regions.) There is little formal authority in each tribe, and because life is so communal, any member that tries to gain increased power or form alliances will be swiftly disciplined within the camp—or, rarely, removed from the tribe altogether.
They know who they are, what is expected of them, and why it’s important to preserve their history and way-of-life.
Our modern society struggles to understand the primitive ways of the Kung, but most of us see something appealing there. Indeed, many of our assumptions of happiness, well-being, and success are tested and found deficient in comparison to this tribal lifestyle.
We assume: Modern society, with its technological advances and conveniences, will offer increased leisure time. However: Our culture works long hours, and our leisure time is largely limited by time spent commuting to work, picking up kids, and grocery shopping.*
We assume: Modern society will offer us far more control over our lives. However: Our work often produces a desperate cycle of earning, obligation, debt, and more earning. Everyone has a boss, or two, or twelve. The Kung have far fewer belongings but far more control of their time, relationships, and work.
We assume: Modern society will remove barriers to our happiness and well-being. However: As Junger explains in Tribe, self-determination theory suggests that we need three basic things to be content: We need to (1) feel authentic in our lives, (2) feel connected to others, and (3) feel competent in our life’s work. These “intrinsic” values consistently correlate to increased happiness, whereas “extrinsic” values like beauty, money, and status rarely correlate to sustained happiness. Statistics on happiness and income level have shown that well-being increases as our basic needs (food, shelter, work) are met, but beyond that (about $40,000 for an individual or $70,000 for a family in the U.S.), happiness decreases.
Living in community makes us healthier, happier people.**
In the pursuit of the autonomous, individual self, modern society has often traded relationship, family, stability, and work-as-serving-the-common-good for accomplishment, accumulation, debt, mobility, and work-as-a-status-symbol.
We don’t all have to move to Namibia at once.
But, as believers, we are first and foremost citizens of the eternal Kingdom of Christ, and we can look critically on all human institutions, expecting to find some common grace and some utter brokenness.
The Lights Are Still On
Meanwhile, the American church can often look like a wasteland. I am wearied by FoxNewsChristianity, the latest megachurch scandal, and the evangelical twitter wars.
But I found a great reminder this week in an unlikely place.
I’ve been reading philosopher James KA Smith’s book on how Saint Augustine still speaks to us today, and he suggests we take another look at Christianity.
“I encourage a second look [at the church]. Let your eyes skate past the megachurch industrial complex and take note of the almost invisible church in your neighborhood that you’ve driven past a thousand times without noticing. Check on it some Tuesday night, and see if there aren’t lights on in the basement. Maybe the food pantry is open. Or the congregation is offering a financial or marriage class. It might just be the choir practicing.”
Like the Kung people, our little communities remind us who we are, why we do what we what we do, and why it still matters.
This is what GOOD SOIL is all about. Call us basic, old-fashioned, even outdated.
Whether your church is 5,000 or fifty, whether you’re a pastor or a teacher/nurse/lumberjack, whether you feel the wind is at your back and you’re gliding across the waters of life… or you’re pedaling uphill into a headwind:
Keep doing what Christians have been doing for 2,000 years. Keep planting the seeds, watering the soil, and pulling the weeds. Keep teaching, keep serving, keep singing.
Let the world speak of the decline of the church and the death of God many years ago. Let your eyes skate by loud, glamorous religiosity.
The lights are still on in the basement, and we’re doing just fine.