As a child in kindergarten, you’re invited into a flock of kids and left to make friends. If all goes well, you get to play a little. The benefits are often self-evident quickly, and even when they are not, it's just good to be able to laugh with the rest of them, consoled they are not laughing at you.
By high school it becomes clear that there is more variety, and more work to decide where you fit in: there are cool kids, nerds, pretty people, jocks, artsy kids, goth kids, metal kids, weird kids, and then...everyone else. In the defined groups though there are rules and an underlying logic about what’s appropriate to wear, eat, drink and say, and how and when to do it.
The college version is a little more sophisticated, and to the point. Much like in adult work life that will follow, belonging to the tribe now relies on a few different factors like geography, income and other status markers: in career life we’ve all come from elsewhere and will come together by necessity now.
That's how it works except, of course, when it doesn't, and some of us fall through the cracks.
I never did completely fit in with any group, but I wasn’t at odds with any of them either. I found myself comfortable with roughly about 60 percent of what any of these groups thought, valued and did. This put me in the fringes most of the time: being inside would have required more compliance, more of a do-or-die mentality.
It would be years of trying to “fit in” before it dawned on me that there might not actually be an established tribe for me: I am shaped simply by my unique circumstances. Paradoxically, I thought there might be more people very much like me—a scattered set of individuals, outsiders, tribe-less people with a similar pain point.
Belonging means being part of a club with its own shorthand for seeing and explaining the world. A more sophisticated group such as a gang, cult, or elite military unit, will have a structured hierarchy, a set of values and customs, and well-articulated membership benefits. They have often had many years to “get their act together”, to make their package of offerings and requirements compelling and easy to understand so that even with layers of coded language, you quickly sense the security and protection that would come from joining, their “insurance” against the uncertainty of life. Other intangible benefits are also clear: by subscribing to a common set of ideas, beliefs and “what feels right” in a closed group, you can let your guard down more easily, and not feel like you have to defend your positions or feel challenged all the time. Inside the group, “everyone understands” because everyone in the group reinforces what the group has agreed to believe about everything that is outside the group. There will never again be any need to take the long route to coming to conclusions, because group-thinking offers a “shorthand”—digestible, bite-size conclusions.
“...a man must at all costs keep some part of himself outside and beyond life. If he should ever for an instant cease doubting, accept wholly the truth of what his senses conveyed to him, he would be dislodged from the solid ground to which he clung and swept along with the current, having lost all objective sense, totally involved with existence.”
― PAUL BOWLES, The Spider's House
The opposite to belonging may feel like a curse when you’re inexperienced and simply trying to make sense of things. Eventually, however, patterns emerge and in them you start to see some reward: there’s a clarity that comes from being able to identify yourself as an outsider, and to see the world through your different eyes.
Not being burdened by any strict “code” of how to think liberates you to generate your own standards for living and a moral compass that is not in conflict with your own empathies and ambitions. One of the key aspects of not belonging is the ease by which you can feel and demonstrate an open mind to unfamiliar ideas, or to ideas you can revisit. Republican or Democrat, Muslim or Hindu, plaintiff or defendant, fundamentalist or scientist, you're able to see at least something in all their points of view because it is now easier to pick up on the humanity behind any label that tribes put on people.
But if you’re uncomfortable with questions and risk of individuality, belonging to a tribe becomes a convenient shortcut for thinking and for living. The more rigid and clear the tribe's rules are, the easier it is to suspend your own original ideas and just “go with the flow”. It’s very possible to spend your entire lifetime insulated by this comfort of belonging, to never wake up into yourself. It takes courage to break away from the tribe you’re born into and go on the journey, to seek out what works for you. Under what conditions will you see any return on the investment spiritually, financially, or on other terms? What compromises will you have to make? And how permanent is the consequence of joining? A good litmus test is to consider that tribes are often very clear about what they will give you, but it's up to you to consider what they take from you in return. For every opportunity, there is a price in leaving something else on the table, an opportunity cost.
The easy, quick advice is that you have to urgently decide right now(!) what you want and where you belong. But it’s not that simple and it's not a fast thing. It takes time and effort and eventually we find what works for us—in the moment, for the short term, and in the long term. After having put in enough miles, if we're lucky, we get to look at the long stretch behind us and make some sense of it.
You have to decide that after a stretch of time has passed, at a certain age you are no longer in a formative time, you're “informed”. And you realize that for the most part if you don’t belong. The question then becomes, “How comfortable am I with this version of myself?” Only you can do the math on what membership to any tribe is worth—or not. What among your values, ideals and standards will you have to put aside or dispose of permanently?
With so many groups and subgroups, it's inevitable in our increasingly fragmented culture that everyone is in a place of not quite belonging. With access to as much deep information as we have on any subject, as fast as we have it coming to us (or for us), it's easy to “get lost in the buffet”, to fashion ourselves into someone palatable, acceptable.
But alone, with nobody to tell you what you can and cannot consume, or what might be healthy, you are in that wonderful place of uncertainty and doubt. And that's ok. You'll be unsure but ready to sample what might work for you or not. That's ok. Life goes on regardless, time still flows and you can still find yourself or not—just like everyone else.