A Sense of Belonging

As society enters the post-liberal era, it is now time to return to those solid values that have stood the test of time and to re-align our moral compass accordingly.

In the pursuit of so-called economic advancement and specialisation, globalisation has decimated communities and torn them apart.  And as towns and communities have disintegrated – with jobs and skills transferred abroad and no hope for a future outside of the dole – so too have the families that formed the backbone of those communities.

People no longer have any sense of belonging – to each other, to their family, to the community or to a faith.  It is not surprising, therefore, that families are struggling to “hold it together”. 

Young and Belonging

One of the many areas of significant concern having a direct impact on the family and the wider community is the safety and well-being of young people. We have a deep intergenerational responsibility to understand how we have gotten to where we are and what is needed to ensure the safe and meaningful future of our children.

We need to go back to first principles, to understand the context within which we are operating, and we must challenge underlying assumptions upon which edifices are often misguidedly built.  What are the challenges confronting young people?  Is any faith or cultural community immune from these challenges?

Some months ago, I was asked to think about these issues and was privileged to have had access to many young people, to leading psychologists who deal in the issues young people present, to community organisers and leaders, to educational experts, to inspirational teachers and youth workers, and to parents of young people.

It is wellnigh impossible not to have some preconceived notion of what the answers to your deliberation are likely to throw up.

But I never understood then as I do now, that what young people (and dare I say, most people) are looking for is “simply” a sense of belonging.

Of course, drugs, pornography, social media, friendships etc. are all challenges confronting young people to some degree or another.  But I believe that these are all signposts to a far bigger issue. 

Most of us have a strong need to belong.  We are challenged when we either encounter rejection or we can’t quite figure out how to gain acceptance.  And in the process of seeking acceptance, we sometimes reach for exaggerated “tools” to get there – whether through foreign substances, out of the ordinary behaviours, self-harm or the like.

In an increasingly fragmented, deconstructed, disintegrated society we occasionally (or, maybe, all too often) fail to notice the calls from others for attention.  I wonder whether we even notice these calls in ourselves.  But, more worryingly, we don’t do enough to build the structures or environments that provide hope, attachment and belonging so that when someone does shout, we stand a chance of hearing them or, preferably, that we avoid the need for the call in the first place.

Globalisation has disaggregated communities and offered no replacement for human interaction.  I might be a member of the global family with access to information from every remote part of the universe.  I can certainly purchase goods and services from places I can’t even spell.  But where are the real people I can touch and feel and love and turn to in times of need?  Where are those live bodies from whom I can draw true warmth and comfort?  And where are the opportunities for me to give back when others need me because when we give to others, we build connection?

Not too long ago we used to belong to clubs, gyms, faith groups, PTA’s, lodges, Women’s Institutes.  We would see each other at school, at work, at the pub, in the supermarket.  We learned together, laughed together, put on amateur dramatic events together, arranged village fetes together. 

And now?

We order our groceries online, watch Netflix at home, exercise at home, “like” our “friends” on Facebook from our computer at home, etc.

To what do I belong, to whom do I matter, from whom do I draw my role models, from where do I develop any sense of proportion, reality or balance? 

Historically we modelled behaviours from teachers, ministers of religion, parents, civic leaders.  Today our touch points come predominantly from the multi-billion-dollar, ubiquitous social media and entertainment industries.  Their deep pockets and sophisticated tools are designed to lure me into a parallel and perverse other world against whom the traditional models seem incapable of competing.

These “other sources” provide instant gratification, immediate access, 24/7 interaction and endless choice at the swipe of a finger.  They titillate, fascinate and occasionally educate.  They provide views, news, reality and fantasy.  They polarise and bring together.  They clarify and usually blur.  And all too often they leave one without any sense of what is true and real and what is not.

But they don’t really know ME or my family or my values or what might be good or appropriate for me. 

A recent Forbes article [1] suggested that the pandemic wreaked havoc with our sense of belonging.  Whereas we’re hardwired for connectedness, social distancing forced us apart.  The author suggests that belonging is “the sense that you’re part of something. You feel attached, close and thoroughly accepted by your people. But belonging is more than just being part of a group. Belonging is also critically tied to social identity—a set of shared beliefs or ideals. To truly feel a sense of belonging, you must feel unity and a common sense of character with and among members of your group.”

Jeanine Stewart, senior consultant with the Neuroleadership Institute argues that “being surrounded by other human beings doesn’t guarantee a sense of belonging. Belonging actually has to do with identification as a member of a group and the higher quality interactions which come from that. It’s the interactions over time which are supportive of us as full, authentic human beings.”

For me the powerful words in the extract above is “over time”.  Today’s society is instant and fast moving and disposable and replaceable.  How many relationships or interactions last “over time”?  How many intergenerational connections are enduring or even exist at all?  And if those interactions aren’t “over time” then our sense of belonging is seriously impacted.

Even in the pre pandemic workplace a Harvard Business Review [2] study found that 40% of people claimed to feel isolated at work, leading to lower commitment and engagement.  So, even when we found ourselves physically connected to other people in the workplace, we nevertheless struggled for acceptance and inclusion by those around us.  Without it, we don’t believe we belong.

Belonging is a fundamental human need.  When we don’t have it, we feel isolated.  In a work environment that can translate into lower productivity.  In a home or social setting, lack of belonging plays out in so many different – and often harmful – ways.

And what can we do about it?  I don’t claim to have the answers, but I wonder whether we can draw guidance from Deuteronomy Chapter 20 which describes the conditions necessary before a soldier can go to war.  Where soldiers have not completed one of the following four conditions, there is no secure knowledge that they are a joint and severable part of the whole, a collective unit able to rely and depend on each other.  And what are these conditions:

  • He has built a house but not consecrated it;
  • He has planted a vineyard but not redeemed it;
  • He has betrothed/engaged a woman and not yet married her;
  • He has not found security. 

In other words, developing a sense of belonging probably derives from some rather basic, fundamental human needs – a home, a job, a family, and security.  Perhaps these are the areas where we need to start our efforts to rebuild a society to which our children connect and belong.

I pray that in the post-liberal era we will rededicate our efforts with strength and wisdom to return to strong, family values providing our children with a moral compass and the love, warmth and sense of stability and security which are preconditions for a lifetime of belonging.

  1. Missing Your People: Why Belonging Is So Important And How To Create It ,Tracy Brower
  2. The Value of Belonging at Work by Evan W. Carr, Andrew Reece, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, and Alexi Robichaux