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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Sense of belonging

by Mike Masterson | April 4, 2021 at 9:02 a.m.

Easter seems an appropriate time to reflect on a comment by former Governor Mike Huckabee who says, in order to live a fulfilled existence, we each need a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

Yet in the age of covid we continue splintering into angry tribes with sharply opposing views of what America represents and how its future should unfold.

I've always been one who appreciated and enjoyed our uniqueness as individuals. For me, such feelings have become a fundamental piece of creating a purposeful life.

My desire to bond was born in a family that moved every other year. That military transience forced me, my brother and sister to invite others we befriended into our lives.

When daughter Anna came to live with me as a 14-year-old, I invited all the incoming ninth-grade females to her late August birthday party. My hope was they would benefit from arriving at their new junior high school bolstered by their new acquaintances and friends. And that might help each share a common sense of belonging.

It's difficult to imagine my lifetime without feeling I belong to groups of friends, organizations and those with common interests.

A sense of belonging is said to be the security and support we feel when there's a feeling of acceptance, inclusion, and identity within members of a group. It often occurs when an individual can comfortably bring their authentic self to their workplace. When employees feel like they don't belong at work, their performance and personal lives suffer.

Writing for Psychology Today, Karyn Hall explains, "A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions. Some find belonging in a church, some with friends, some with family, and some on Twitter or other social media.

"Some see themselves as connected only to one or two people. Others believe and feel a connection to ... humanity. Some struggle to find a sense of belonging, and their loneliness is physically painful for them, Some seek belonging through excluding others. That reflects the idea that there must be those who don't belong in order for there to be those who do. Yet a single instance of being excluded can undermine self-control and well-being and often creates pain and conflict.

"A sense of belonging to a greater community improves your motivation, health, and happiness. When you see your connection to others, you know that all people struggle and have difficult times. You are not alone. There is comfort in that knowledge."

So much of what we humans do involves belonging.

Many fulfill the need by joining a church. There, they socialize and find common meaning in the role of spirituality. However, attendance in organized Christianity has been declining, with the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christian reportedly dropping from 78.4 to 70.6 percent between 2007 and 2014. While those figures show America is still an overwhelmingly Christian country, a Pew Religious Landscape Survey also suggests the drop is a trend.

The decline likely is apparent this Easter morning in many churches as the number in pews has noticeably diminished in recent years. Considering the messages shared are rooted in biblical principles of love, forgiveness and empathy, where else will such redeeming traits of living and belonging be instilled?

Counselor Jennifer Wickham writes for the Mayo Clinic: "We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health. The social ties that accompany a sense of belonging are a protective factor helping manage stress. When we feel we have support and are not alone, we often cope more effectively with difficult times in our lives. ...

"We begin life with the most crucial of needs: attachment to a caregiver. This is the beginning of our fundamental need for belonging. Studies have shown children who haven't achieved a healthy attachment in their young life have lower self-esteem, ... are mistrustful and can have a perception of rejection. Depression, anxiety and suicide are common mental health conditions associated with lacking a sense of belonging."

Young people without familial support, especially in the urban sprawls across America, often find belonging in gangs. I suspect this creates one of the few senses of belonging they will know as adults.

Wickham also advocates three keys to greater fulfillment. First, simply make an effort. "You cannot belong if you don't choose to make the effort to engage with others." Next, maintain and teach the benefits of an open mind. "Try new activities and meet new people. Consider new ways of thinking."

Finally, practice an attitude of acceptance by recognizing that others have different ways of being. "Focus on similarities rather than differences. Teach children to validate the feelings of others."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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