By Elizabeth Hovde
“We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
— Brené Brown, researcher at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work
I had a lot of windshield time on a drive home from Boise with my two young boys who found tablet-assisted “Clash of Clans” and back-seat movies far more desirable than playing word games and “Would you rather?” with me.
I got in one “Would you rather?” I asked, “Would you rather go to school naked or in a tutu?” They both chose tutu, after much deliberation. Good men. Since I wasn’t able to amuse myself with a cell phone or laptop and had no audio book, I decided to play a thinking game.
An article I read the night before mentioned the following exercise: Recall your three most treasured memories and your three worst ones. I picked my threes. I smiled, I wiped tears, I started creating an awesome soundtrack for the picks.
With hours of driving yet to go, I upped the exercise and spent some time looking for a common thread that weaved through this six-pack. There was one: belonging. A sense of belonging or the loss of it was present in all these memories, and in a whole bunch of others that didn’t make the cut. And it became even more clear to me that rocks do feel pain; and islands cry. Maybe that’s why they are surrounded by water. (Despite that song, I really was making a great soundtrack that the Simon and Garfunkel tune kept crowding.)
Belonging is among the most basic of human needs. We need to give and receive affection from others. We need to feel that we’re a part of something. We need to feel loved.
Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, believed the need to belong was such a major source of human motivation that it’s third on his list of five human needs, sitting only behind physiological and safety needs.
Other theories have also focused on the need to belong as a fundamental psychological motivation. According to Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, all human beings need a certain quantity of regular and satisfying social interactions. Inability to meet this need results in unhealthy loneliness, mental distress and instability, says the research I did on the issue. I’d add anxiety to that listing.
Law enforcement professionals, support groups and psychologists talk about how much the desire to belong plays into gang membership. The Los Angeles Police Department writes, “To the majority of gang members, the gang functions as an extension of the family and may provide companionship lacking in the gang member’s home environment.” Belonging is often why members join.
It’s often why they won’t or can’t leave, even when their moral codes are compromised and they are being used. I’ve always found that fascinating; It gives me some understanding about the unthinkable.
A week after my windshield time back from Boise, I sat staring at a lake with a group of girls I’d been staring at that lake with for 15 years. During this year’s lake stare, it was clear I didn’t belong. My group of fun, close-knit and wonderful women had lives that stayed on a path mine didn’t. So had my family’s. So had my ex-husband’s family, who, after 20 years, was no longer mine.
I’m building new relationships. I probably need to find new lakes to stare at, so I don’t have Simon and Garfunkel making appearances in my head.
In a world in which my life’s landscape hardly resembles the one it did five years ago after a traumatic brain injury and a divorce, I’m glad I can at least see the boys in the back seat ignoring “Would you rather?” They help keep me from falling apart and breaking, which I’d really rather not.
Dina Elizabeth Hovde writes columns for The Oregonian. She belongs two miles from the Columbia River in a home with her two sons.