by Jeff Polet
My friend James Matthew Wilson recently wrote an essay over at Public Discourse that highlights an essential issue we rarely spend time discussing: the need to belong. Sadly, our ideas about the importance of belonging, a deep engagement that satisfies a fundamental human need, get eclipsed by our comparatively thin and superficial talk about inclusion. Including someone is a relatively easy affair that requires very little of any of the parties; I’m not even convinced it’s a virtue (it’s more of a fake copy of the old virtue of hospitality). Then, too, the word “belonging” has suffered its own attenuation of meaning through overuse and misapplication.
Still, to belong to something means that it’s an essential part of your identity, that you would not and could not be who you are independent of it. We include friends and strangers in our activities, but we belong to a family. We can be included in activities in many different locations, but we belong to a place (or community). Belonging makes a strong claim on us, it requires from us obligations, duties, and a sense of purpose. It’s connected to the idea of rootedness, the sense we have that we would soon wilt and perish if we were ever disconnected from the sources that nurture us.
The consequences of belonging’s attenuation are recognizable in a highly mobile society such as ours. Families move apart and as a result children often grow up without grandparents around, or elderly people face their last years without the solicitous care of their offspring, or parents have to navigate the early years of child-rearing without the support of their own parents or siblings. These serious human costs are often obscured by our relentless touting of the so-called benefits we associate with hypermobility, most of which we measure materialistically. A dramatic example of this occurs when military personnel who serve overseas are reunited with their loved ones in very public fora, so that the public voyeuristically celebrates what ought to be a private and intimate moment, while overlooking all the pain and loneliness of the preceding months or years that make the reunion so touching in the first place.
Even if we might think it’s important that we remain connected to our loved ones, we too often neglect our connection to places. Not for us is the fate of Socrates, who in his deep piety toward Athens took from them the dregs of the unjust cup rather than flee the place of his birth. As Americans, we are often on the lookout for the next big opportunity or great adventure, blithely leaving behind the very soil by which our roots were nurtured. Transplanted, we often become transformed, and not usually in healthy ways.
What is missing from modern life is fidelity—and not just fidelity in general, but fidelity to those things that are given us and that we can never, at least fully, choose for ourselves. By this I mean our places of birth—our block, our neighborhood, our village, our state—and the families and communities into which we were born.
He plays with the helpful distinction between what Edward Said called “filiation” and “affiliation.” The former are the things we belong to naturally, that are beyond our control. None of us choose the time or place of our birth, nor do we choose our parents. These are simply givens; they are given to us as much as we are given to them. Affiliation refers to the relationships we take on our own terms, that we make for ourselves. As Americans, obsessed as we are with the problem of identity, we tend to regard all matters related to identity through affiliation. But one of the reasons why identity becomes such a problem for us to begin with is because we view filiative relationships as burdens from which we need emancipation. My freedom, in a very real sense, as we understand it, requires from me the severing of filiative bonds, even though such severing is the condition of a built-in identity crisis. Wilson again:
Affiliation is often a tragic necessity, a chosen alternative but a reluctant one, after filiation fails. Any good human life will contain chosen attachments and, most likely, many of them. What I want to defend is not filiation against affiliation but rather the relative superiority of filiation to affiliation and, furthermore, the intrinsic dependence of all affiliations on those natural attachments that Said called filiations. Those communal attachments that are given to us are greater than those we choose, and those we choose, great though they may be, depend for their quality on the priority of our given attachments. I distinguish not between good and bad, but between root and vine.
I find that last sentence very suggestive. No vine can sustain its own existence, nor should it regard the root as something that is “holding it back.” What Wilson seems to be arguing for might be captured by the word “gratitude”; in another era it would have been referred to as “filial piety.” Without such rootedness and gratitude, we easily become lost in a world that seems hostile and indifferent. We feel powerless and helpless.
When our attachments to others are purely affiliative and our filiative ones hang by a thin thread, we are more likely to seek out those most like ourselves (ironically enough, it’s often not our family members). Tocqueville referred to this as resemblance, the tendency in democratic polities, given the general idea of equality, for people to associate with people only like themselves. Surely one reason why this happens is because, given the fragility of our own identities, we seek to buttress them by incorporating others into it. At its fullest expression this tendency manifests itself in mass politics: because I feel so helpless and powerless, I augment that weakness by taking on the strength of the larger group. As a result, our politics become more tribal and political action more driven by crowds, or mobs — that which, according to Madison, was to be feared more than anything. “If every Athenian were a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still be a mob.”
When, after 20 years of academic wandering, I was offered the opportunity to return to the place of my birth, I seized the opportunity without hesitation, not because I thought it was a perfect place — I was all-too-familiar with its flaws and supposed provincialism — but because it was my place. This truth was impressed upon me when my wife and I had a conversation about where we wanted to be buried, and it struck me as foolish not to live in both the place of my birth and my death. [You can click here to read an essay I wrote about this over ten years ago. Rereading it now, I think it holds up pretty well.]
We pay a high price for our freedoms, but typically hide or ignore the bill. Too often we become more interested in moving to a better place rather than making the place where we are better. The result is a species of people who are always restless [Tocqueville: “in a democracy everything is unstable, but the most unstable thing of all is the human heart”] and the degradation of our communities. Only those with deep roots can withstand the winds and rains and blights and corrosions of time that make building strong communities so difficult. The exercise of our freedoms can leave us with individuals who suffer a perpetual identity-crisis and communities in a state of paralysis. It is those who turn outward, in face-to-face and long-term commitments, who ameliorate both problems at once.
In Tom DeFrank’s Write it When I’m Gone, a chronicle of his off-the-record conversations with President Ford, DeFrank recalls one of his last meetings with Ford. The dying former President, who had spent so much of his life in DC and his retirement in Rancho Mirage, spoke wistfully to DeFrank: “‘When I wake up at night and can’t sleep,’ he recalled, in a voice suddenly far away, ‘I remember Grand Rapids.’” It’s the oldest of human stories, the longing for a place we can call home. And no matter how far away our careers take us, we can never shake the imprint of the places of our birth … nor should we.
- Why would it be the case that turning inward creates for us more of an identity problem regather than less of one?
- How should we think about the places of our birth and upbringing? What do we owe those places, and not just the people in them?
- Under what circumstances can we justify abandoning such places?