“What happens when we die?” asked 2023 Centennial Hall Fellow Sebastian Junger ’80 during his assembly talk on May 12 in the Performing Arts Center. “Why do dying people see the dead?
“This is one of the things only the dying seem to know.” He said that hospice workers consistently talk about how chatty the dying get when the end is close—and that, frequently, they are speaking to unseen people from their past.
The subject of Junger’s coming book is near-death experiences. He is well-known as the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, Fire, A Death in Belmont, War, Tribe, and Freedom. He is also a celebrated director of several documentary films, including Restrepo, which broke ground in war reporting, was nominated for an Academy Award, and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and Korengal about the war in Afghanistan.
Junger became interested in the subject of his current project, he said, for several reasons. As a war reporter, he was nearly killed multiple times; on one assignment in Libya—on which Junger was meant to go—his best friend, British photographer Tim Hetherington, was injured and bled out. After he left war reporting, Junger also experienced an undiagnosed aneurysm in his pancreatic artery. The doctors expected him to die and Junger, who is an atheist and definitely not a mystic, he said, spoke with his deceased father, who was comforting him. “It was really scary,” he said. Then he thought to himself, “You were allowed to go right to the precipice, the threshold. What did you learn? That’s the talk I’ve given myself.
“Think about how amazing life is. … You get to love other people, and that’s the deal of the century.”
Perhaps ironically, Junger spoke about trauma and war not necessarily being the causes of mental health struggles for soldiers and others impacted by horrific events. Instead, he said, it is often the alienation that comes after and that, during crises, people’s mental health actually often improves because there is a positive tribalism that comes from moving through crisis with others: You can rely on those who are in it with you. He spoke of the generosity you see in combat, noting that humans are the only species that will sacrifice themselves to save another.
Junger shared what he sees as two great human truths: 1) that when we act collectively, with the good of others at the center, it is good for us and 2) that courage works—the size or the strength of the people or the army is not always central to whether it succeeds.
As a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and as a special correspondent with ABC News, he has covered major international news stories and has been awarded both a National Magazine Award and a Peabody Award. Throughout his career, Junger has created powerful, emotionally compelling, and vivid portrayals of the impact of war and all its heroic, disturbing, and life-affirming contradictions. His recent works examine the tension between individual freedom and community, and the conditions that create belonging. He is also the founder and president of Vets Town Hall, which encourages veterans to share within their communities their own stories of service to their country.
For the past six decades, CA has awarded the Hall Fellow lectureship to a wide array of accomplished individuals. Each endowed speaker brings a unique perspective and exemplifies CA’s core values and mission through their work and service.
As this year’s fellow, Junger spoke of how his privileged upbringing in Belmont, Mass., allowed him to thrive in every conceivable way and how his French teacher at CA, Mr. Richardson, introduced him to the existentialists who influenced his thinking. Junger said that, ultimately, there are no brave people and no cowards: There are people who make choices. “Keep your eyes open and your heart open,” he told CA.