Chronic Belonging

When I was in grade school, I was in a Church youth group. The group was interesting and fun, and I was able to really feel a part of it. I took comfort in belonging to such a group. My response was to jump in with both feet. If there was a related event, activity, or group, I was always a part of it.

This was the first of what would become a string of attachments to groups that would span much of my life.

A sense of belonging to something, anything, seems to be a basic human need. Even when the thing to which we belong is negative, the belonging itself can feel like a positive. While the need to belong is not necessarily a bad thing, I have found myself to have suffered from a chronic need to belong, often to the exclusion of anything else.

As I entered university, my new fix for belonging came from a band. There were only three of us, but I would have practiced every night if it were up to me. Of course, the music was a draw and it was a fun to create something, but what always pushed me was the need to belong.

Later in life, I came to belong to a new type of group. This time it was a legal entity; a corporation. Of course, it was much more than that; it was a group of peers building something together. Again, I wanted to belong, and as always, I wanted to belong as much as I could.

This worked well for quite a while, as the founding partners were all at a similar stage in life were such a venture really could be their primary focus. When your need to belong to something is this strong, though, it can be troubling when another member finds something else more important than the group. When some of the partners chose to focus on travel or education, even though it was almost always beneficial, this struck at my basic need to belong to the group. How could someone not want to be completely focused on this?

Ed Robertson of the group the Barenaked Ladies spoke in an interview about how deeply he was affected by the departure of one of their founding members during the midst of their early success. I can’t find the quote (it was a TV interview), but Robertson spoke of how it shook his view of what was important to see a member of this thing that was so important to him just walk away from it.

I write about this now because I can understand it in hindsight. That is to say, it’s behind me. I’m still a member of the company we founded almost ten years ago. It is still an important part of my life. However, it is no longer the most important thing in my life, nor do I feel the need to immerse myself completely in it. No longer do the choices of fellow company founders shake my faith in the value of the group.

It’s also easy to understand the origins of this need to belong once you are able to step outside of it. From this vantage point, it’s clear that the need comes, at least in part, from the comfort of sharing values and goals with others. As long as you’re not the only one living your life in a particular way, you can find security in knowing others have made the same choice. Even if it turns out to be a mistake, at least it’s a mistake you’ll make in good company, rather than alone.

Moving beyond this chronic need to belong seems to require a sense of self-confidence. You need to know that you can make good choices even when others make different, or even contrary, choices. It also helps to know that there are some groups to which you will always belong. Having a family of my own now seems to have given me much more security in this regard. I will always be, by definition, a member of my own family.

I finally find myself able to be a part of something, without having to immerse myself completely in it.


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