We all have a need to belong, a need to be connected. Further, we often define ourselves in terms of our connections. I am part of a family. I am also connected to people named McDonald and Flaherty and Crowley and Lynch. These connections go back many years. I am also a veteran and so belong to that group. At times, I may choose NOT to belong. Thus, for example, I do nor belong to the local psychological association.
As I go through my day, I may enjoy experiencing those connections, whether it is a happy, weary return home at the end of the day, an encounter with a brother or sister veteran, even a chance meeting with a Redsox fan at the grocery store.
We all thrive on such belonging and struggle when we do not feel connected. Yet our society has many who feel they do not belong anywhere. The homeless veteran. The teenage unwed mother. The AIDS patient. Sadly, other people contribute to the sense of not belonging through rejection and judgment.
It is no accident that the world’s great religious leaders reached out to those who don’t belong. Jesus, for example, clearly came so that he might be a connection for the marginalized, the isolated, the alienated. He also had harsh words for those who reject these people to include harsh words for the rejection and judgment justified by organized religion.
This need to belong is so strong that it may take us in negative directions. I may act in unacceptable ways so that I “fit in”. I may adopt certain beliefs so that I am accepted, not because I really believe them. I may join a gang.
I may also begin to define myself as somehow better or more privileged because of my connections. The dark side of belonging is to remind others that they DON’T belong. My need to belong runs the risk of judging myself to be in some way better than those who don’t belong.
The need to belong certainly reaches a high level of intensity in teenage years. This need to belong gives rise to the many subcultures of teenage life these days — the Emos, the Goths, the Skaters, the Jocks, the Cheerleaders. There are others. All thrive on the awareness that I belong and you don’t!
Should I feel guilty about belonging? Absolutely not! I celebrate being part of my family. I celebrate being a veteran, a Catholic, a Redsox fan. These connections give my life meaning and vitality. But I am also called to be sensitive to those who don’t belong. To reach out in some way to the marginalized.
I want to share with a you an excerpt from the series Roots. This comes at the conclusion of Roots, Part II, which invites us to accompany Alex Haley as he seeks to establish a sense of belonging and connection within the family of his ancestor Kunta Kinte. When that belonging is experienced, the result is quite moving:
Reflection: Where do you belong?