How We Choose to Belong Makes a Difference: Belonging (Part 1)

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Desiring to build a more compassionate and cooperative society is a noble goal. Getting there starts with respect. However, respect as an abstract concept may be as empty as cocoon after the butterfly has emerged.

Active respect acknowledges and defends another person’s needs and dignity. We started talking about needs several weeks back. Following Abraham Maslow organization of need into five groupings or levels. Maslow uses a pyramid to display the different levels, with the lowest layers being foundational for those placed on top.

In prior weeks we have lifted up the basic biological needs of food, clothing, shelter, air, water, and rest. We then turned to safety. Recognizing a desire for safety drives the compulsion of many to arm themselves—the results quite often are the opposite. An increased number of guns in our homes, cars, and on our persons makes everyone less safe. However, the motivation is understandable. I’ll have more thoughts about these issues in the weeks ahead.

But for now, we turn to the third of the five levels in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need—Belonging. To belong involves developing social relationships. I want to think about relationships in three different categories: Given, Tribal, and Chosen.

I am not suggesting that there are walls between these three, or that they are necessarily distinct. There is overlap, which I will try to suggest as we go along, but it seems useful to think of three different “types” of relating.

Even before our birth, we are in relationships. I was born, male, the oldest with a mother and father. A sister joined after five years. I had aunts and uncles, a few cousins, and grandparents (only my father’s dad remained when I was born). These relationships were given to me. They impacted how I grew up, what I learned about relating to others, and what values I learned by word or deed.

Other than parents all “relatives” lived a 16-hour drive away. Therefore, my understanding of belonging was shaped by my parents. I would encounter my extended family in person no more than once or twice a year.

I have cousins who live within a 15-minute drive of all of their grown children and grandchildren. Some of them are in their home daily, and all of them at least once per week. Those grandchildren have a very different sense of what it means to be family, from what my sister and I were raised with.

I am not suggesting that one is better than the other—they are just different. Even more different are those whose biological parents gave them up for adoption at birth. Other varieties come if a parent dies, abandons, divorces, remarries, or identifies as gay—to name only a few variations on the theme of family.

My point is, as children we are given a family; large or small; present or absent; nurturing or distant. And whatever that grouping happens to be will shape our understanding of belonging. From them, we learn values, the meaning of closeness, and who we are. We learn these things whether they intended to teach us or not. We are even shaped through the stories of our ancestors. When my dad was a teenager, his “Uncle Volney” died. But his adventures and stories live on through what was told to my generation. Passing it on to the next keeps the history alive.

 

It has been said the two biggest questions we spend most of our lives trying to answer are: Who am I? and Who is my neighbor? From the earliest cave dwellers to philosophers, religious figures, physicians, psychiatrist, social scientists, and community development specialists of today—all try to answer those questions.

The issue of belonging points us to a truth. I understand something of Who I Am, by understanding something about those people around me—family. It turns out our families are also neighbors. By learning to relate to them, we practice relationships with the larger world–also known as neighbors.

We don’t get to choose our families—they are given. But we do get to decide how we respond to, accept, or modify their influence. My parents were not “demonstrative” in showing any affection. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw them kiss or hug. That did not mean it never happened—but if so it was out of sight.

So, when I became interested in a girl I had no clue what was appropriate, or expected, or welcome. I couldn’t read their signals, nor did I know how to send any. Being shy only complicated the matter. I had to create or discover a different model of how to relate to people of the opposite gender. I was fine as long as we were in class talking about assignments, or trying to figure out what the professor meant, but take away that framework; I had nothing to say.

It was years after my marriage that I began to understand some things about non-verbal communication. My point, I knew from early on that the model my parents had given me would not work for me in the world I lived in—so I had to learn another way. We can’t choose our families, but we can choose—to some degree—how to related to them, and what to do with the things they taught us.

Next time we will talk about belonging to a tribe, and the other kind of relationships where we have more choice.

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