We all like to belong to something, to part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s a condition of being alive as a social creature that we seek the company of others and find comfort among friends. There is strength in numbers, and it is a strength we all need to one degree or another. No-one wants to be truly alone.
I guess that’s why it’s so important for us to identify ourselves with groups and organizations. And we do identify with them. Belonging to a group, or declaring our allegiance to a set of beliefs or ideas, defines who we are. It defines us in the eyes of others and it defines us for ourselves. When we tell ourselves and the world that we are, for example, environmentalists, we are saying something more than just what we think about trees, rivers and skies. We are saying something about what kind of person we are, and what sort of values we hold. Our belonging to a group is about more than just a label.
For some, a church is such a group; for others, it’s a football team. For some it is a civic organization; for others still, it is a political party. You belong to some such groups, and you probably consider yourself as a part of some larger ideology or movement. We all do.
Some groups we belong to are more vital to our self-identity than others. In some cases, our membership in the group takes on a place of such prominence in our lives that we would find it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize or be comfortable with ourselves outside the context of the group. We see ourselves not so much as individuals, but as parts of the greater cause, and without that greater cause, our own identity would be diminished. Anyone who has ever moved from a place they’ve lived and worked in for a long time understands how this feels. We even say in such cases that we’ve left a part of us behind. Something is missing when the group is gone.
There is, or course, a downside to this kind of belonging, and we all know what that feels like too. When the group’s demands on us and our time begin to adversely effect the other areas of our lives, we should be wary. There are some groups who encourage or require that we associate only with other group members, and some who even suggest that we disavow or disassociate with friends or family who are not also in the group. Some groups require an adherence to prescribed language, and authorized words, thoughts and ideas. Some groups are authoritarian and stifle dissent. These groups are not especially good ones to belong to.
I like to think of myself as an independent thinker, and an independent person. I’m not very comfortable in groups. But still, I do identify myself, to myself and others, by those groups, organization, movements, thoughts and ideas I associate myself with. I hope that I remain true to myself and true to my friends as I do so. I hope that I never lose myself or my friends just to please some group or group leader; that would be tragic.
Author Steven Brust says it about as well as it can be said:
We must belong, but without too much belonging.