Our Need to Belong
Many times over the years, I have gone to diners and restaurants with at least one other person and nothing distresses me more than to see someone eating dinner alone. There were times when I even wanted to invite them to join our table, but never did because of the obvious awkwardness it could provide at many levels.
Also, I have often wondered why youngsters join street gangs. To do so is to give up a large amount of their freedom. They are required to wear styles or colors of clothing. They are expected to give absolute loyalty to the gang. To prove this, they might be required to commit a robbery or take part in a drive-by shooting. Members of opposing gangs are looked upon as enemies. There is a constant state of war between them. Under no circumstances are they to be considered friends. That must be very difficult for a youngster who is basically gentle and kind. Why does anyone join a group that makes these kinds of demands?
No doubt, there are a variety of reasons. For some, it is probably a way to make money by selling drugs. Others may simply be following the lead of an older friend or brother. Those who have studied this phenomenon among young people say that gangs have one primary attraction. It is that they give youngsters a sense of belonging. Everything else in their lives may be falling apart. But the gang is something they can hold on to. They belong to it, and it belongs to them.
Those of us who are older should not surprised by any of this. We have long known the importance of peer pressure in the lives of teenagers. We can remember in our own lives the places that we went and the things that we did were all intended to impress the right people. Most of us would rather be popular with our classmates than to be the top student in the class.
Fortunately, we have largely outgrown that obsession. But we have not outgrown the need to belong. And we never will. Adults feel it, just like teenagers, thought maybe not quite so acutely. It is part of the reason people get married. They want to belong to somebody. It is the reason people join civic groups and even churches. They want to belong to some group.
There is a reading from Romans that gives us the ultimate answer to this need. It tells us that we belong to the family of God. He is our father, and Jesus is our brother. Paul goes a bit further with that analogy calling us, "heirs of God and heirs with Christ."
In other words, God has written us into his will and whatever Christ stands to inherit, we are in line for the same. Paul points out two different ways that we can belong:
There is a belonging that enslaves. Apparently, some in the Roman church were involved in this. Paul does not explain it, but he does say, "You did not receive a spirit of slavery, leading you back into fear." What they were frightened of was the threat to be enslaved by the Romans. But we know some of the things that have an affect on us: drugs, alcohol, etc. People would quit if they could, but they can't. I have read somewhere that in one Chinese dialect, the word "habit" is written with two symbols. The first symbol means "I have it." The second means "It has me."
Bondages can be a very subtle thing. I am sure no one reading this article belongs to a gang. But if you do, are you free to quit? You can say I don't want to quit, but could it be that you're afraid to quit? That can also be with smoking, alcohol, etc. If you belong or are attached to something and cannot walk away from it, then you are not free.
There is, however, another kind of belonging that leads to freedom. When you belong to the family of God, you are free to go or you are free to stay. And if you so choose, you are free to become the best you can possibly be. Paul did that in his life. He started out as a bigoted little nationalist. No one was more important to him than his own race. But when Paul met Christ, he joined the human race. He came to see himself as a member of God's family along with many others from every nation on earth.
Do you want to belong to somebody or something? Just remember that we belong to the family of God and it is not an easy thought to think. And, it is not an easy life to live. It does, however, bring belonging that provides freedom. God is our father. Christ is our brother. And every person on earth is a potential friend.
Who could ask for anything more?
Rev. Msgr. Frank Wissel passed away at the age of 76 on June 19, 2014. To honor him, we will rerun some of his articles.
Rev. Msgr.Frank Wissel (1938 - 2014)