November 2014

The art of belonging

We need communities to sustain us, but if those communities are to survive and prosper, we must engage with them and nurture them, writes Hugh Mackay.

BY Hugh Mackay

Aren’t you tired of being told that the deepest truth about human beings is that we are hopelessly selfish by nature? That even acts of apparent altruism are really just intended to make us feel better about ourselves and to look better in the eyes of others? That we are ruthlessly competitive creatures, so intent on satisfying our own needs that we are capable of aggressive and even violent behaviour towards anyone who gets in our way?

Of course those things are true of some of us, some of the time. But there’s an even deeper truth about us: we are by nature social creatures; co-operative more than competitive. If you doubt it, look at how most of us choose to live – in cities, towns and villages – because, for all our claims to independence, we are not good at surviving in isolation.

We need each other. We need communities to sustain us, but if those communities are to survive and prosper, we must engage with them and nurture them. That’s the beautiful symmetry of human society: to survive, we need communities and if those communities are to survive, they need us.

So here’s the classic human quandary: we are individuals with a strong sense of our independent personal identity and we are members of families, groups and communities with an equally strong sense of social identity, fed by our desire to connect and belong. This tension between our independence and our interdependence explains why we are so often conflicted and confused: we know how best to live, but our internal war distracts us.

It is indeed in our nature to be altruistic, because altruism nurtures the community, but our natural drive to please ourselves sometimes takes over. We know that a civil society depends on us all treating each other with kindness and respect, but sometimes we simply want our own way, regardless of its impact on others. We know the price we must pay for belonging to a community is to curb our self-interest, but our impulses and addictions sometimes get the better of us.

If you want to see the tension between independence and interdependence in action, watch us playing team sports. Team sports are a graphic demonstration of how we must first learn to co-operate with the other members of the team before we can hope to compete successfully.

Most of us find it hard to resolve this tension, which is why we often dream of a place where it would be possible to live as we think we should – where we could “be ourselves” while still being part of a functioning community. This is what drives the fantasy of “village life”, even in our big cities. (Sydney’s Lord Mayor, for example, is determined to make Sydney a “city of villages” in the manner of New York.)

That word “village” has emotional power because it conjures up the idea of a place where the tension between independence and interdependence can be resolved in a harmonious way; where we can write poetry in solitude but also be part of a caring and supportive community; where the neighbours will strike that perfect balance between friendliness and respect for each other’s privacy.

Inside our heads, the fantasy often involves an idyllic rural setting that magically eliminates flies, snakes, drought, grasshopper plagues, and a higher rate of respiratory disease and mental illness compared with the city – to say nothing of poorer access to educational, medical, administrative and commercial services. And yet, regardless of the tough reality, the concept is appealing because the very word “village” evokes a feeling of physical safety and emotional security; a place where I could say that I belong here”.

The good news is that you can create a village – or at least the life of a village – anywhere at all: it’s not about where you live; it’s about how you live, and the acid test is how you relate to the local neighbourhood. Mostly, our neighbours are accidental – we didn’t choose them, yet we must get along with them. They will become the people who, with or without the extra dimension of friendship, will become part of the fabric of our, and our children’s lives.

Just like any other kind of human relationship, our relationship with a local community requires some effort on our part if it is to work.

In modern Western societies like Australia, many pressures work against community engagement and involvement: our changing patterns of marriage and divorce demand difficult adjustments for many families and social networks; our low birthrate reduces the role children have traditionally played as a social lubricant; the rise of the two-income household means both partners are often too busy to give much time to the local neighbourhood; the mobility of the population (in Australia, like the US, we move, on average, every six years); universal car ownership reducing local footpath traffic; the IT revolution that creates the illusion of connectedness while making it easier than ever for us not to see each other.

Communities are not self-sustaining. We need to respond to our natural “herd instinct” by joining, associating, congregating, volunteering, talking and listening – engaging. Everything from joining a book club or stopping to chat with a neighbour to greeting a stranger helps to build the social capital that makes communities strong.

Part of the magic of communities is that, however imperceptibly, they shape us to fit them. We are the authors of each other’s stories through the influence we have on each other. Each of those stories might be unique, but the sub-text is universal: it is about finding the answer to just one question: where do I belong?

Every community has its differences of opinion, its social divisions and its cultural tensions, which is simply to say that every community is both diverse and, inescapably, human. If you want to master the art of belonging, you’ll need to accept the imperfections, the complexities and the tensions and deal with them. And the best way of dealing with them is to overlook them. There’s a lot of tolerance – a lot of forgiveness – in the art of belonging.

So why would you bother? Let me suggest two reasons why it’s worth the effort.

The French Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel claimed that the reality of our personal existence could only be fulfilled through our engagement with communal life. He believed – and who would disagree? – that if we position ourselves (or are forced) outside a community, we tend to become obsessed with ourselves: self-absorption is the sure sign of a person not engaged with a community. After all, we never really know who we are until we know where we belong: ‘finding yourself’ makes no sense outside a social context.

In the end, the reward for having connected with your neighbours is that you will feel physically safer and more emotionally secure in your neighbourhood. (Who wants to feel like a stranger in their own street?)

The Art of Belonging is published by Macmillan.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and bestselling author. His most recent book is "Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society", published by Macmillan.

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