The Importance Of Belonging

I’d like to take a little time today to further reflect on this idea of “love is the currency of life.”  This is a followup to my previous post, so check that out before reading this one.  I want to reflect on more things I observe around me everyday.

These days I spend a lot of time in the gym.  I go there about five times a week, for about two hours a day.  During my workouts the radio is playing in the background over the speaker system.  Almost every song I hear playing has something to do with love (love in the same context as my previous post), either how happy it makes them, or how upset they are from it being withheld from them.  For brevity, I’ll only share a few specific examples.

The first song that comes to mind is Home by Three Days Grace.  This song plays at least once every time I’m in the gym.

I won’t share the full song lyrics, but let’s just analyze the beginning.

I’ll be coming home
Just to be alone
Cause I know you’re not there
And I know that you don’t care
I can hardly wait to leave this place

No matter how hard I try
You’re never satisfied
This is not a home
I think I’m better off alone
You always disappear
Even when you’re here
This is not my home
I think I’m better off alone
Home, home, this house is not a
Home, home, this house is not a home

Think about these lyrics in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  What do you see?  To me, it seems to be about belonging and esteem.  This man is telling us he feels isolated.  He comes home (presumably from work), and his partner is not around.  Maybe she’s unavailable emotionally, too busy, distant, whatever the reason, he feels she’s not there for him.  He’s very upset that his partner withheld love from him.  He also seems puzzled as to why, wondering what he did wrong.  After experiencing this loneliness for a while, he seems to have come to the conclusion that he’s unable to bring happiness to others, and has lost trust in them, so he’s better off alone.

My friend Greg and I often discuss music lyrics with each other when we catch up at restaurants.  When a musical artist sits down to write a song, they have a blank sheet of paper in front of them.  They could write about anything.  They could write about how tasty the hamburger they ate for lunch was.  They could sing about how fun the new Call of Duty series is on Xbox.  They could reminisce about how the football game went on television.  But do they?  Not typically. Well, they sometimes do in country songs, but that’s more to express a sense of belonging to the southern culture.  But anyways, all of this is very telling about people and what goes on in their heads.  This song by Three Days Grace wouldn’t be such a big hit if it didn’t resonate with millions of people all over the world.  As I said before, our society doesn’t give people any real sense of belonging.  The bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy is fulfilled in most of us, as we have food, safety, etc., but it doesn’t offer much beyond that, and the signs of the pain people are experiencing is everywhere.

If you understand this simple idea, you will see it repeating over, and over, and over.  Almost every song is about different aspects of the esteem and belonging tier of Maslow’s hierarchy.  For another example, let’s look into the most popular song on Youtube – Wiz Khalifa’s See you Again, featuring Charlie Puth. It  has 2.9 billion views as of the time I’m writing this.  Hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, all over the world, identify and relate to this song.

Once again, let’s just discuss a bit of the lyrics.

It’s been a long day without you, my friend
And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
We’ve come a long way from where we began
Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again
Dang, who knew?
All the planes we flew
Good things we’ve been through
That I’ll be standing right here talking to you
‘Bout another path
I know we loved to hit the road and laugh
But something told me that it wouldn’t last
Had to switch up
Look at things different, see the bigger picture
Those were the days
Hard work forever pays
Now I see you in a better place (see you in a better place)

How can we not talk about family when family’s all that we got?
Everything I went through you were standing there by my side
And now you gon’ be with me for the last ride

First you both go out your way
And the vibe is feeling strong
And what’s small turn to a friendship
A friendship turn to a bond
And that bond will never be broken
The love will never get lost (and the love will never get lost)
And when brotherhood come first
Then the line will never be crossed
Established it on our own
When that line had to be drawn
And that line is what we reach
So remember me when I’m gone (remember me when I’m gone)

This song is about losing a friend, reflecting on memories of the space they struggled to create together, how they once had a wonderful sense of belonging together, how painful it is now that that’s gone, and there is an expression of hope that maybe one day they’ll see each other again.  See what this is?  We had belonging, now we don’t, that makes me sad, I hope that happiness is restored to us one day.

As I said before, this love is the currency of life.  It’s what everyone is scrambling for, trying to create, and trying to find.  I don’t want this post to be just about song lyrics though so let’s take a few other observations from my daily life.  Take the culture within the university.  In almost every physics course I was asked to take, at some time or another the Nobel prize was mentioned.  Achieving this prize seems to be the great pinnacle of success as a physicist.  However with me, I was more interested in understanding the psychological aspects as to why this prize excites scientists so much rather than the actual prize itself.

I think the prize represents several things.  First it signifies that the scientist was able to contribute something worthwhile to society — hence psychologically, this is part of the ‘esteem’ tier.  Next it gives them recognition, respect, and acknowledgement from their peers, so that is part of the ‘belonging’ tier.  That’s what I think the prize itself is to them.  The excitement toward winning the prize, or writing some successful, important paper is a hope and desire that that seminal idea of theirs will bring more belonging and esteem into their lives.  This form of ‘love’ is dangled out in front of them like a carrot on a stick.  You want love, belonging, and recognition?  You want to be somebody who matters?  Work harder!  Work!  Work!  Work!

“A modern academic will need forty hours a week to perform teaching and administrative duties, another twenty hours on top of that to conduct respectable research, and still another twenty hours to accomplish really important research…. Make an important discovery, and you are a successful scientist in the true, elitist sense in a profession where elitism is practiced without shame…. Fail to discover, and you are little or nothing.”

– E.O. Wilson, famed biologist

It’s similar to people dreaming of being rockstars and celebrities.  I know a guy who is absolutely amazing at guitar.  Right now he works as a custodian, but all of his free time goes into practicing guitar and recording songs.  He was married for a while and even had a few kids, but he has never been happy.  His mundane life wasn’t enough for him.  He wanted to be on the stage, huge crowds cheering for him as he played each solo.  All he would ever do is complain to his wife about how dull it all is, how unhappy he is, and so on.  Well, she left him and took the kids with her.  Now he has nothing.  What saddens me about that story is that this man’s intense craving for belonging and acknowledgement from the world around him has destroyed his family, the little connection he did have with the world.

It’s a shame he couldn’t find enough happiness in sharing his songs with his children and wife.  I guess he imagined that one day, when he’s up on that stage he’d finally feel alive and happy.  I hope he finds that one day, but I don’t think he’ll get it from crowds of adoring fans.  Many who finally make it to the top, all their song lyrics are about those who were there for them before they made it.  Then these celebs and rockstars take their new fortunes and buy their old loved ones huge mansions.  Many fail to realize that all that ever actually mattered to them was the love and respect of those around them, and what mattered to the surrounding others was the same.  And deep down, nobody really cares about mansions, fancy cars, and big fancy vacation getaways.  Those things are nice if they’re around, but most people can live very happy lives with far less when there’s love.  And without love, that other stuff can only give you the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy.  That’s it.  This point needs elaborating on.

I came across a really fascinating talk online the other day, but I can’t remember the author’s name.  Basically he was discussing the history of the pilgrims and Indians in the very early days when settlers came to the United States.  Few know this, but loads of people fled life in the cities to go live with the Indians, but next to no Indians came to live with the settlers.  That’s because the Indians had such a deep tribal culture which made people feel like they belonged to the tribe.

You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this sense of belonging.  To many it’s the only thing that even matters in this life.  Take war veterans for example.  Many of our military men and women, they prefer serving together in war than they do civilian life.  But why?  That’s because the military facilitates a tribal atmosphere for those serving in the same squads.  Soldiers find a deep sense of belonging, where everyone has one another’s backs, where they’re valued, where they have something to contribute, where they mean something to the people around them in a deep and meaningful way.  Many combat personnel would prefer living in a state of war, bombs going off, gunfire in the air, where they see death and carnage everywhere, but there is brotherly love, than to come home and work in a meaningless job, surrounded by people who don’t care about one another in any deep or meaningful way, where the greatest thing to everyone is themselves.  In war, military life encourages brotherhood, where survival of the squad means everything, and they are taught to give their life to save the others if need be.  That’s what soldiers miss.  Check out this TED talk.

What does this say about our modern culture?  Many men and women would rather serve in dangerous combat, surrounded by death and destruction, where there is brotherly love, than live in our modern isolation and loneliness.

All of this makes me think of a low-budget movie I saw on Netflix called Bokeh.  It begins with a young couple, madly in love, traveling to an island for a vacation getaway.  They check into their hotel room, go to sleep, and wake up the next morning to find that all the other human beings on the planet have disappeared.  What happens?

At first they scramble to find anyone they can.  After searching far and wide, they discover that it is only them.  They’re on their own.  Within a week, the food in the grocery stores is already going bad and they need to find and secure some source of food.  They’re in constant fear, wondering when the electricity is going to go offline, considering nobody is there running the power plant or is there to repair electrical lines, etc.  They’re worried about getting injured, because if they break a bone or something, there’s no doctors to fix it.  You see how much you rely on others to exist.  After watching the couple in this strange state, I think the viewer realizes how important we all are to one another, even if we don’t consciously realize it.

The most touching scenes to me was watching the young woman send texts and leave phone messages to her mother and father who were no longer to be found.  When she saw the network of loved ones in her life crumble away, she didn’t know how to handle it.  Just those small texts and short phone calls parents and children have with one another mean a great deal.  Just knowing there are people in this world who love you, who have your back, and have your best interests at heart means the world to most people.

All their dreams quickly revealed themselves for what they were as well.  They came to this island as poor struggling artists, so for the first few days they raided the stores, took nice clothing and jewelry, and commandeered the nicest cars for themselves.  They also took over one of the best apartments in the area and made it their home.  But strangely, now that nobody was around to admire them and their new found “wealth”, it didn’t matter to them at all.  What does that say about what they really wanted with their “dreams” of a better life?  It was to belong, to be respected, and to have a sense of self-worth.  Their dreams were actually just symptoms of a living in a society where they didn’t feel they belonged or had much worth.  The expensive homes, clothing, etc., were only symbols they attached to those psychological needs.  What they actually desired, deep down, wasn’t material things, but more love from those living around them.

Even though this young woman had the love of her life with her, she escapes one morning, rides off in her car to some distant place, jumps in a swimming pool and drowns herself after only a few weeks in this horrid isolation.  She couldn’t take it.

Whether it’s starving artists, war veterans, or academics, no matter the person or walk of life, everyone is seeking a deeper sense of belonging.

Thinking on all of this just earlier today, I found myself finished with what I had to do today and was just about to pop Xenoblade Chronicles X into my Nintendo Wii-U to spend the evening gaming.  Then I became hesitant and got to thinking about the trainer at my gym who recently came down with pneumonia and has been laid up in the hospital.  I put the game away, got dressed, hopped in my car, drove over to the hospital and visited him for a while.  I told him how much we’ve missed him at the gym, how I’ve always appreciated him spotting me and helping out in the gym, and told him how much I looked forward to seeing him better and back with us in the gym.  Then his wife told me how happy he’s been when guys from the gym have shown up to wish him well.  It wasn’t hard, and it didn’t take all that long, but it’s important.

I know how addictive technology can be — all the games, movies, and everything else, but I would encourage all of you to get off the couch, get away from the computer, away from the television, and do things in your community that show people in your sphere of influence that you care and appreciate them.  Do what you can to create a deeper sense of belonging.  The world needs a lot more of that.

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