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Reflections on Maslow – Belonging

August 21, 2012

Last week my wife and I went to two very different events: a wedding and a funeral. They set me thinking about what it means to belong.

The need for love and belonging is the third level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, perhaps the most influential psychological theory of the 20th Century. According to Maslow, we are driven by five basic needs – physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and finally self-actualisation. Under normal circumstances, he claimed, these needs are hierarchical – it is hard to feel safe, for example, unless our basic physiological needs are satisfied.

There have been many challenges and qualifications to Maslow’s theory since he first published his it in 1943. I’m not about to go into a learned discussion on the pros and cons of Maslow here. I’m not learned and I’m not a psychologist. But if theories about human motivation are to be relevant and meaningful beyond the high priesthood of academia, they need to speak to the rest of us. They need to help us to make sense of what we experience in the world around us, and help us understand our own motivations as well as those of others.

Personally I don’t fully buy into the neat hierarchy of needs proposed by Maslow. But I do believe that the needs he defined are indeed the fundamental drivers of humanity. My own experience tells me that of the five needs, by far the most important is the need to belong. For me, belonging – or standing apart – underlies most human joy and sadness.

Which leads me back to the two very different events that touched me last week.

The wedding was actually a renewal of vows by a couple at whose original wedding, back in 1979, I was a witness. As in the first wedding – a registry office ceremony followed by a celebration in a pub by the happy couple and the two witnesses – religion did not play a part. Instead, our hosts carried out the ancient Celtic ritual of handfasting, a tradition that long preceded church-endorsed marriage.

It was an idyllic weekend at Nic and Victoria’s home – set in a few acres in Norfolk, only walking distance from the coast. Victoria teaches at a local primary school. Nic, who dropped out of a medical career a few weeks ahead of qualifying, has made a living from many things over the 43 years since we first met at university – paper recycling, stained glass, breeding rabbits and growing Christmas trees – all from the base of his smallholding that features numerous monuments to their lives. The caravan they lived in while renovating the house, the workshops where Nic creates his church windows, greenhouses where the bunnies once bred, and a copse of overgrown fir trees, still waiting for Christmas. And now a large pit that will eventually become a pond with water lilies, frogs and toads.

The revellers came from four generations. In addition to family, there were friends drawn from all the various tendrils of the couple’s life. Many of the guests, including us, slept in tents in the grounds – my first night under canvas for a very long time.

For me it was a bittersweet occasion. A joy to meet people whose lives I had followed through reports from a mutual friend. Yet I had not seen the hosts for twenty years, and there were others whom I had last encountered even further back in Bob Dylan zone of impaired memory. Yet here we were, still friends, swapping war stories as if they had happened yesterday – mad trips to Cornwall in vans with dodgy brakes, sleepless nights, parties and great disasters.

I felt sad that I had missed their important moments in the intervening years, and that they had missed ours. There really wasn’t much that bound the guests together apart from friendship with our hosts, yet that was enough to spark conversations and make new acquaintances. That and the live music, fire-eating, fireworks and barn-dancing. Oh, and my fellow member of the worst band in the world – now a consultant psychiatrist – rolling back the years, writhing on the floor in a death embrace with his harmonica.

A few days later we went to the funeral of a close friend in deepest Hampshire. Mike had been a serving army officer, a golfer – whence our friendship – and as decent and caring a person as you could hope to meet. A man whose appetite for life was as great as his prodigious ability to eat, as our mutual friend Shon observed in his eulogy to his best mate. He died of cancer at 54 after a three-year struggle in which at one stage he recovered sufficiently to play golf and still beat Shon and me despite his dramatic weight loss. But once the cancer had spread, there was no way back, and his death two weeks ago was the end of a long downward road.

I knew very few people at his memorial service. One or two golfing friends were there, and of course his family and numerous army colleagues. As I sat among the congregation in a village church dating from the 12th century and still boasting an array of gargoyles around the eves, I found it hard to share the certainty embedded in the Anglican liturgy of another life. I also felt angry that such a good man had been taken from us while so many venal, selfish, cruel and feckless individuals end up living into old age. What kind of plan is at work here? And it’s easy to ask what kind of cop-out it is to explain the inexplicable by telling us that there are things that are beyond our understanding, known only to God?

And yet I would never try to undermine the certainty in those who were present that Mike had moved to another plane, as would we all in the course of time. And nor would I deny people a ritual that they find comforting even if they harbour doubts about the fundamental meaning behind the rites.

At the wake, I met some of the people who served with Mike in the Army. One of them is due to leave the service within the next three months. As someone in his mid-50s, he should be able to look forward to a good few years of employment before he retires. We talked about his difficulties in finding a new job, and also the kind of job he was looking for. “A job where I can belong, just as I do in the Army” he said.

He’s right to seek that sense of belonging in his life after the army, but I fear he will find that hard. Organisations – be they public or private – are not there for the benefit of employees. Companies are properties, to be bought, sold and profited from, usually by a small elite of owners or managers. Public organisations live for ever in the shadow of their paymasters, and in the case of today’s UK that usually means politicians all too willing to wield the axe regardless of the consequences on employees and communities. The only consequence they fear is bad PR.

So in what sense did the partygoers in Norfolk and the mourners in Hampshire experience a feeling of belonging? Through shared rituals, certainly. And of course through a common affection for the people whose lives they were celebrating. These bonds, though strong, were temporary. When the events were over, the attendees walked away. Some are joined by much deeper bonds – family, army, village life, religious congregation. But when the reason for the gathering is over, the bond between many disparate groups of people usually disappears too.

We also feel a temporary belonging during events that involve much larger communities than the small groups to which we typically belong. In the UK we have recently experienced happy events like the Olympics and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. And a few years ago we went through the shock of the 7/7 London bombings.  Yet the sense of wellbeing or sadness soon dissipates when the day-to-day realities of life return to the centre stage.

Another kind of belonging is to be found in the social media. We have Facebook friends. Yet could anyone say that they truly belong to anything when they look at their hundreds of Facebook friends, and ask themselves how many share intimate bonds of friendship? The hollowness of the weak bonds of Facebook friendship is surely reflected in the tanking of the company’s share price since flotation.

The times when a sense of belonging is typically strongest is when the interests of a group are threatened. This is what brings us on to the streets. It’s what leads to conflict, insurrection and civil war. And when the interests of a group are more than threatened, but are actually damaged and supressed over the long term, it can lead to violent revolution. It is easier to unite in order to preserve the status quo, or to throw off the yoke of oppression than it is to promote “world peace”, to “save the planet” or to prevent the extinction of other species. The forces of personal preservation are always stronger than those that aim to bring about change with no immediate and tangible results.

Personally, I have never been strong on belonging. Beyond my immediate family, I have always avoided activities where I would have to subordinate my individuality in a common cause. I don’t go for the usual British communal activities. I don’t drink much alcohol, I avoid parties when I can, and I avoid mass gatherings like the plague. When I do find myself in large groups I’m often far more interested in the crowd than in the reason for the gathering. I people-watch. I observe behaviour and try and make sense of it.  Mass rituals are not my thing.

For all that, I don’t see myself as a misfit. I can be gregarious. I just prefer the company of small groups of individuals. I’m a great believer in teamwork and in the discipline needed in order for complex tasks and projects to succeed. But I also believe that to suppress individuality over the long term in pursuit of a common goal can often result in compromise and sub-optimal results. So you could say that I’m a fairly typical product of a Western individualist culture.

But for most people a sense of belonging – to a family, an organisation, a church or a society – is absolutely fundamental to their wellbeing.

The upside of this need is the support of others, the comfort of thinking and doing things in the same way, and the feeling that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

The downside, as religious leaders, politicians, generals and dictators know only too well, is that we can be manipulated, coerced by peer pressure and morally seduced into suspending our critical faculties. We do things because others around us do them, even if the still, small voice inside us is telling us that what we are doing is harmful to others or even downright evil.

For this reason, of all the human needs so succinctly defined by Maslow, the need to belong is by far the most powerful and potentially destructive. It is what leads us to place the needs of others before our own, but it is also the need that spurs us to commit genocide. It is the god of war as much as the voice of peace and tranquillity.

It is the source of all comedy and all tragedy. Without the need to belong, we would not be human. With it, we are all too often inhumane. And so it has been since first we came down from the trees and emerged from our caves.

Fortunately, another aspect of humanity is that we have a choice. We don’t have to belong to anything or anyone for ever. We can opt in and we can opt out. We can recognise our mistakes and try to make amends. For all but the most terminally damaged among us, there is a way back, a way out.

As for me, I shall continue to follow the Groucho principle of refusing to belong to any club that will have me as a member. And I shall continue to believe that true belonging can never extend beyond personal experience.

More on what Maslow means to me in future posts.

From → Religion, Social, UK

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