To belong, is to be human.
Humans are born with an innate need to belong, to be deeply understood, to be accepted for who we are — faults and all, and to feel like we’re a part of something much bigger than us.
Our ability belong to and organize into these groups is the reason we went from an unremarkable species to dominating our entire home planet and becoming the most powerful force on earth.
Where once belonging was limited to blood ties and small groups in Stone Age humans, over time we learnt to live in large numbers in spatially constrained areas and redefined belonging around artificial constructs like tribes, civilizations, countries, trade, sports teams, religions, or simply a belief in the stock market.
In doing so we’ve organized ourselves to achieve remarkable feats like building breath-taking empires, leading unbeatable armies to fight legendary battles, and inventing technologies that help reach beyond our little planet to explore the universe.
We’ve come so far as a species because our ancestors figured out that working together in harmony leads to exponentially better results. They were a part of something much bigger than themselves— they belonged.
Belonging to a faction fulfills us, establishes trust where there was none before, helps us feel connected instantly to fellow humans, and turns us into passionate creatures capable of unthinkable things. In a world without belonging based on artificial constructs, humanity wouldn’t thrive and we’d likely be extinct at the hands of other faster, stronger, nimbler species.
Belonging is a necessary condition for society to exist, and mostly it is a force for good.
But, belonging by nature also creates an us and a them.
When you say you belong to something (say x), inherent in that statement is the declaration that you don’t belong to something else (universal space — x). There are caveats here, we can belong to many overlapping factions (you can be a Mets fan, love Justin Bieber and riding dirt bikes at the same time), but when you say for instance that you’re a Democrat or you’re in the 99% of the populace financially, you segregate yourself and create a void between you and others who identify as Republicans or the financial 1%.
Thus, sometimes, the simple act of belonging creates an “us” and a “them”, where the interests of “us” are inherently are at odds with the interests of those diametrically opposed. In the womb of this segregation into “us” and “them” all the wars, crime, hatred, jealousy are born.
Choosing to belong to most factions is not a zero-sum game [religion for instance is a non zero-sum game, you being religious doesn’t take away from your neighbor practicing their religion]. But even when the two factions are not fighting for the same scarce resources, an artificial conflict crops up when one faction feels the need to establish superiority over the other. This need to not just thrive, but to thrive at the expense of other factions leads to the aforementioned wars, crime, hate and jealousy.
That’s the state our society is in right now. Our news headlines are riddled with tales of people trying so hard to belong and destroying each other in their quest to do so. Being a Progressive inherently puts you at odds with Conservatives, being rich makes you resent the poor, being black makes you afraid of the police, being an Ivy League preppie makes you detest California hippies.
But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Why do we divide ourselves in our quest to belong?
When we meet new people, we often make assumptions in milliseconds based on existing mental models and use those to (falsely) determine our likelihood of belonging with people.
Truly understanding people who’re not like you takes patience, a curious mind, and a bit of hard work; most people might not have the time or energy to put in that kind of effort into social interactions everyday.
Even if we get past this, to realize that someone from a faction you consider “less superior” to yourself is actually as smart, hard-working and honorable as you strips you of your sense of privilege, leaving you naked and forced to empirically prove your worth to yourself.
Empathy is harder when it’s inconvenient. Its easier to accept other factions when the outcome of acceptance doesn’t affect our daily lives or puts us at a disadvantaged position. To show empathy in this case fuels our egos and makes us feel like good people, reinforcing our sense of self. This, for instance, makes is easier for straight people to accept and support gay rights.
When we remove the thin facade that divides us, we have a world that equalizes all humans. And in this world some people are stripped off the arbitrarily assigned privileges they previously had, leaving them worse off. Rooting for a scenario where you are worse off is understandably hard, as is empathizing with people who you think caused this downgrade.
It takes a special person to show empathy towards a situation, when that situation is fundamentally at odds with their own interests.
A world full of individuals who all acted like that would be a remarkable world to live in, and is something we should all aspire to.
Can we find a way to belong while concurrently having empathy for those on the “other side”? What needs to change?
Yes, we can! Our collective attitudes just need to shift to be more loving, curious, and understanding towards people we don’t agree with. We need to remember that for the most part, the people we meet are great humans with good intentions. We need to realize that we make snap judgements towards these humans and check ourselves when we do so. We need to consider belonging the default state of being when we meet fellow humans, and then find facts to support this hypotheses as we get to know these people more.
And to go a step further, when we meet someone who isn’t open to empathy towards all, we need to redouble our efforts and lead by example, showing them empathy and showering them with love till they come around. Instead of dismissing them, we need to try to understand why they believe that universal belonging is so hard to achieve. And as we reason with them, if they still prove to be sticklers for their beliefs, we need to hold our end of the bargain and exercise empathy without any expectations regardlessly.
If enough people embrace this attitude, over time we will create a better, more loving, more connected world that’s a happier place for all its citizens!
LOVE installation by Alexandr Milov, Burning Man 2015.
Why should I make the effort? What’s in it for me?
When we all exercise empathy with “the other side”, together we can stop all wars, crimes and hate and save our society from self-destructing.
Imagine a society where the first response to meeting someone new is love, curiosity, and understanding. A society founded on the principles of inclusion would feel like a warm room by the fireplace, welcoming to all, full of enough good vibes and great conversations to cater to anyone who might want to join.
Together, we can build a more beautiful society based on love and understanding, instead of one on fear and snap judgements.
In conclusion: 5 Things We Can Do Today To Make Love, Not Walls.
Realize you make snap judgements. And check yourself the next time you do so. Gender, age, clothing, race, sexual orientation, money, east coast or west are all subtle cues we use to bucket people into bins.
Assume Belonging By Default. Then find facts to support this hypotheses as you get to know people more.
Assume all people have good intentions until proven otherwise.
Embrace differences as opportunities to learn and paint with another color and enhance your own experience of life.
Love and connect with abandon. Specially with people you disagree with. Chances are they’re nice people who just want some loving. Remember, all we humans want from each other is to be understood, loved, and felt cared for. And all you need to bring this abundance of love into your own life is to approach each new conversation with a loving and curious mind.
Time for a challenge! 🙂
Today, before you go to bed, go say hi to someone you don’t think you have anything in common with.
Let’s call this person Becky.
Try to have a meaningful conversation with Becky. You goal is to find 1 important thing you agree with Becky on, and 1 thing you disagree on.
After the conversation, take a minute to form a reasoned argument for why you think Becky believes the thing you disagree with her on. How would you argue for this belief? Is there a chance that you’d hold the same belief were you born to the same parents, in the same neighborhood, surrounded by the same friends as Becky?
Understanding why Becky believes what she believes will help remove the perceived barriers between you two and let you connect on a deeper level the next time you see her!
[Bonus Points for finding & engaging a Becky a day, for the rest of the week. ☺]
To making love, not walls!