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I belong; therefore, I am… or am I?

December 7, 2020

Have you ever been confronted with the possibility that something you’ve believed ‘forever’ may be flawed or incomplete? Maybe not all wrong, but in serious need of a re-think? I’m exploring one such item today.

“Engagement is Everything.” I’ve long considered this perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past 25 years. When students are enthusiastically engaged in out-of-classroom-activities (OOCA), all key ratings of the student experience rise. When teachers are actively involved in OOCA, all key ratings rise. When parents are actively involved as volunteers at a school, all key ratings rise. When alumni report having been engaged in OOCA while at a school, all key ratings rise, both of the student and the alumni experience. I’ve been studying these things non-stop since 1995. I have the data that says it is so.

I’ve written about engagement before. In fact, engagement was the topic of my very first entry in this blog, back in July of 2009. I won’t repeat that entry here. My interest today is more in the exploration of why engagement is everything. Why is it so important? What are the implications, if any, to my understanding of how the world works and my small place in it?

Here’s my take:

Engagement is all about belonging. When we engage, our chances to belong to something larger than ourselves increase. “Belonging is an overarching objective of our existence. I belong; therefore, I am. Sorry, Monsieur Descartes – thinking alone is just not enough. Until we belong, we do not exist, at least not optimally. At the heart, we are social creatures. Our need to belong is paramount. From my work in surveys, sense of belonging, sense of place, sense of making a difference, sense of purpose – all rise with engagement. In my interpretation, sense of belonging is the hinge for all of it.

So… with their engagement in athletics, clubs, the arts, or community service, students are not only acquiring critical interpersonal skills. They’re also learning what it means to belong.

As I ponder on all the data that support this notion, I’m compelled to ask why the formula doesn’t always work. Why does belonging sometimes go terribly wrong? Clearly, belonging to a violent street gang would not shine a favourable light on belonging. Is my framework too simple? Are there important factors not taken into consideration? These questions, of course, are not new. They’re about the nature or type of engagement. Are some kinds of OOCA more successful than others? I’m certain the answer is yes. The level of supervision and guidance of these activities will also bear meaningfully on outcomes. Without appropriate guidance, OOCA risks devolving into a Lord of the Flies experience.

What we engage in… what we belong to… should be measured in terms that capture the nature and type, the quality of the belonging experience. From Golding’s novel, this study plays out in an exploration of the conflict between savagery and civilization. Leaders and followers. The individual and the collective.

A 1981 movie, “The Wave,” explored for high school students the risks of belonging for the sake of belonging. Intolerant treatment of those students who would not join “the movement, the wave” led to a dramatic end of movie revelation of Adolf Hitler as the group’s leader. The lesson? Under the right circumstances, and under the right influence, just about anyone is capable of just about anything.

My exploration today focuses not on the nature and type of engagement, but on the nature and type of belonging. Is there a limit to the value of belonging? Is there a diminishing return, or even a negative return, to the notion of belonging? If I belonged to a political party (I don’t) would my membership inhibit or diminish my ability to engage in productive exchange with members of other political parties? My inclination is to say yes. Of course, type of belonging will bear on diminishing and negative returns, but I’m as interested in understanding the notion of belonging itself. What is the drive to belong? What is the price of belonging? Importantly, can our awareness of the trade-offs involved in belonging help to protect us (and others) from our need to belong.

The first obvious question is: Why do we value belonging so highly? Well, belonging first is how we organize ourselves. Hunters, gatherers, farmers, tradespeople, manufacturers, worshippers, schools, athletes, artists, and so on. On a purely utilitarian level, we benefit from engaging with people sharing common interests.

Moving up the hierarchy a notch, we also acquire an emotional sense of safety and security and self-esteem simply by joining and belonging to a network of affirmation and support. It would follow, then, that people lacking in safety, security, and self-esteem would feel a stronger need for the affirmation and support that come with belonging to some group or movement larger than themselves. This vulnerability, in turn, presents an open invitation to abuse. Fear is among the most powerful stimulants and motivators. Hatred of ‘the other’ follows quickly on the heels of fear. We needn’t look far to find both historic and current examples of such manipulation.

Belonging necessarily involves labels. Be it a sports club, Mensa, a nationality, a race, or religion, we are all attached to dozens of labels related to how we belong (I do not belong to Mensa, for the record). At which point, I ask, do my adopted labels work against my own interest, or that of others? How can I protect myself, and others, from the consequences of my belonging? Are there red flags to watch for? Is belonging bad? Should I avoid belonging or should I just be more selective?

As I consider the matter, I back up in time to consider the landscape of belonging from a primordial perspective. In the beginning, belonging was tribal and territorial. Even now, much of belonging is tribal and territorial, though expressed in different ways. Athletic pursuits, school uniforms, flags, national borders and walls, secret handshakes… all are labels that define belonging.

I belong to a tribe. We live in Dorchester. Our extended tribe lives around the world.

I belong to a neighbourhood, but perhaps not as much as some of my neighbours.

I belong to a group of guys who play pickup hockey on Saturday nights, but not to the sub-group who head to a pub after the game. I pay for the first of these choices until my knees recover, usually by the following Saturday. I pay for the second of these choices by excluding myself from what must be a rich and enjoyable social experience. Aside from the fact that I don’t drink, and cannot hear a thing in loud group settings, there’s definitely a price paid for this choice.

Territorially, I belong to a province, but am not actively engaged as a member of that group, excepting when I pay taxes. I am a Canadian, and in turn, do NOT belong to 194 other countries. Is part of the price of belonging the loss of not belonging to something else? I think yes.

Here’s the thing, and this is where it risks breaking down. By default, the labels of belonging also define ‘not belonging’. Our need to define ourselves results in the exclusion of others. Our need to delineate boundaries stems from a need for commonality. As described above, we belong to groups in response to productivity needs, like food and shelter, but also for protection against perceived threats to our emotional safety, our security, and our self-esteem.

Make no mistake of it: There are people dedicated to promoting our fears because with fear comes the acceptance of labels that secure power and wealth for those in charge of our feelings. It’s the old zero-sum game. For us to survive, someone else must die. Winners and losers. The exploitation of fear immediately creates an “us” and a “them”. From that starting point alone, conflict is guaranteed. The creation of one community of belonging necessarily defines another that does not belong. When I allow myself to be defined, when I progressively narrow the articulation of who and what I am, at the same time, I participate in the creation of “the other”.

It is my observation that, when I declare myself and define myself, I am at that same moment robbed of opportunities for growth and learning. When this happens, when I am, by definition, closed off, I am lesser able to add value to the conversation. Given that “adding value to the conversation” is both my personal and business mission, such declarations and definitions are not to be considered lightly. There’s a rich world of grey outside of my experience, and a small world of grey, I should say, on the inside, too.

So… while I know that I derive significant benefit and value from belonging, I’m cautioned by this exploration to approach the experience with greater care. Do I belong here of my own will? Am I being manipulated… or just plain lazy? Is this a temporary state or am I a lifelong member? Is my belonging at the expense of others? If yes, is it a tolerable expense? Well, that’s another exploration altogether, eh? (there – I’ve defined myself again by a mere two-letter interjection)

I hope that my thoughts here belong on your reading list, and add some value to your conversation.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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