The Quest to Belong

Do people need to belong? Is it possible to navigate through our lives in virtual isolation from others save for when absolutely necessary, self-reliance becoming the highest of virtues? Even if such a life is possible, is it desirable?

In her article “The Science Behind Our Need to Belong: Insights into the History, Present, and Future of Belonging Research,” Kelly-Ann Allen, a senior lecturer at Monash University and Fellow of the College of Educational Development Psychologists, reveals that the need to belong is very real.  She refers to a paper entitled “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation,” by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary here:  “Baumeister and Leary firmly identify belonging as a universal human need, ingrained in our motivation as a species and stemming deeply from our ancestral roots” (qtd. In Allen par. 3). So it may be possible for us to profess our self-reliance and introversion, but deep down, we have an ingrained desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves, allowing for association and fellowship with other human beings.

So what shapes can that universal need to belong take in today’s culture? As an example, let’s look at a specific phenomenon or form of belonging that can seem almost ubiquitous in American society: the sports fan. We’ve all seen this in real life or in video form, where elated fans celebrate a championship performance of their beloved team, or conversely throw their wide-screen TV’s from their balconies in lamentation of a heartbreaking loss. The victories, particularly high-profile ones such as national or world championships, can induce feelings of collective euphoria among a fan base. These feelings are intensified if one is gathered somewhere such as a watch party with fellow members of the fandom when the victory occurs, to say nothing of the sensation that accompanies being physically there to witness the event in person, surrounded by the fan-brethren all wearing jerseys or related gear that proclaim their loyalty and fellowship. All share in the collective joy of the achievement, their pride in the victorious team manifesting itself in many forms such as parades and even statues to commemorate the event. It can bring a community together like nothing else, transcending other forms of division to offer a symbol of unity. Of course, a defeat, even a narrow one (those seem to hurt even more), can burn a sense of shame and sorrow so deep into the heart of a die-hard fan it can linger for years, perhaps forever.

These feelings, on the surface, seem counter-intuitive. Did a fan actually have anything to do with it? What right do the fans have to celebrate an accomplishment they merely witnessed? Why should they feel good when they themselves did nothing to earn that victory? The players, the coaches, all those directly involved with the team’s performance–they of course deserve the credit and the praise for their achievements. The fans just watched it happen. Conversely, why feel bad when your team loses? You had no personal control over the outcome, so why should you feel remorse over negative results? You weren’t the one who fumbled the ball, missed the shot, or failed in some sport-appropriate way to directly contribute to the loss, so why the sense of personal defeat? Let the players and coaches nurse their grief as they lament what could have been. Should you not just shrug and say “there’s always next year” and go home so you can get back to your routine life the next day? As a former competitive athlete and current sports fan myself, I believe these questions oversimplify the matter.

First, fans actually DO deserve to share in the sense of accomplishment that accompanies their team’s victories. A fervent fan base can make a considerable difference in a team’s performance. Players draw energy from their fan bases and are buoyed by their support. To know that you have a fervent fan base behind you emboldens you as an athlete, knowing the community you “belong” to has your back. Fan bases not only embolden their teams, they can intimidate and confuse opposing ones through the sheer volume of their voices. I belong to the Seattle Seahawks fan base. We are known as the “12s,” or “The Twelfth Man” collectively. The Seahawks have dedicated the number 12 to the fans; no player wears this number. A “12” flag is raised before every game in Seattle. Football teams have eleven active players on the field at a time; that extra man–the twelfth one– is the force of the fan base, so strong it feels like having an additional player out there, hence the name. The conditions created by the supportive cheers and distracting noise have an undeniable impact on a team’s performance. If no fan base came to watch them, a team would be less motivated to perform, feeling a lack of support. The team and fan base function like two parts of a single organism, both intimately aware of the others’ mood, symbiotically connected as they move through a season. When a season ends, fans are not idle. There is speculation and discussion aplenty: Who will be chosen in the next draft to augment the team? Who will be traded to another team, and what pieces will be gained as a result? What have we learned from training camp? Fans never fully take their jerseys off; the belonging continues to be nurtured.

That sense of belonging and connection can be significantly tested when a team suffers a loss, particularly a high profile one. One would think that losing a game by 50 points would be more devastating than losing by one, but it isn’t. If the team suffers a large-margin loss, though that stings the fans, they are able to console themselves with thoughts such as “Well, we were outclassed today. There was no way we could win that one.” The anticipation, the hope of winning, had faded long before the inevitable outcome. It is when your team has given an extraordinary performance and are within striking distance of winning, and then they falter–that is when the pain in a fan’s heart is the most acute. It was so close; it was right there–a championship, perhaps the first in the team’s history, was within reach. Then, an error or mental miscue–or worst of all, an officiating error– suddenly snatches it away forever. For the fan, shock and disbelief ensue, followed by a rage that desperately seeks a target. Who can be blamed for what happened? The coach? Yes, fire him or her! The player who made the mistake? Yes! Cut him or her from the team at once! They have shamed us! Some teams never recover from such losses; fan bases will be back, though some individual players may never psychologically be able to get past that one perhaps career-defining moment. The fans return the next season, hitting the reset button in hopes of a better outcome in the upcoming season. The pain of the earlier loss will linger, but hopefully, a future victory will one day redeem the community and wash the stain of that soul-numbing defeat from the fandom’s hearts. I will not soon forget the day the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. It was….no, I can’t. Can’t talk about it. Some hurts run too deep. Moving on. Quickly.

Fans feel the victories and the losses because they too belong. They are a part of a collective consciousness, a community that offers a sense of common purpose; they strive together to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. That’s what we as humans do. We seek challenges, as direct competitors when possible, and as fans of others when not. We just need to be right in the middle of the action and feel like we too have achieved, and when you do it together, the joys and sorrows run deeper. Fan bases are like large extended families. The members belong to one another and share the collective experiences of each team community as it competes its way through the season.

This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. In the movie “Invictus,” we follow the Springboks, the national rugby team of South Africa, as Nelson Mandela unites his entire country behind them, channeling the fandom as the driving force for uniting a fractured and divided country. The Springboks gave their entire country something to believe in and support–something to belong to and bring them all together in spite of their many differences.

Before shifting gears, a word for the athletes and fans out there who have suffered losses so painful that they left you wondering how you could possibly even get up, let alone move on. That loss–in a game– just helped you prepare for the more substantial losses to come that life will throw at you. Believe me, I know it is the last thing you want to hear, but you will recover. It’s hard, but in time and with a renewed spirit, it will happen. You win, or you learn. The only time you really lose is when you quit. If you gave everything you had and you know that to be true, then hold your head high, be proud of your efforts, and be thankful for the opportunity to play at all.

So what if you aren’t a sports fan? What other shapes can belonging take for those who desire it? You can belong to local clubs, churches, community boards, or just be an active member of your own neighborhood or local school system. There are countless opportunities to get involved with others and experience having a sense of purpose that makes you feel as though you are a part of something greater–to satisfy that ancestral urge for belonging. Many of us here at the Spiritual Naturalist Society have found a “community” as well; we belong to a connected group of like-minded thinkers who enjoy sharing with one another via the website and the opportunities it offers. Though for many of us such connections feel “parasocial” as many of us may never meet in person, we should embrace the forms of fellowship we have and work to build on them to satisfy our need to belong.

Perhaps you are not an avid sports fan, and you have never been an athlete. Most people have a book, TV series, or film franchise in which they are deeply invested. This too offers opportunity for belonging. Fan clubs exist for just about any book, TV, or movie franchise you can name. I have been a Star Trek fan for most of my life, having not only watched the episodes of every Star Trek series to the point where I have the scripts memorized, but also having attended Star Trek conventions which draw thousands of fans and take place all over the world. Trekkers everywhere can be credited for saving the original series from cancellation and for much of the direction that the future iterations of the franchise that came along took. When the fan voice is loud enough, the creators, often fans themselves, listen. Official or unofficial groups, online or in person, filled with equally fervent fans are out there ready to welcome you.

On the book front, all I have ever needed to know about life and how to live it have come from three volumes: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Lord of the Rings, and Dune. All three books have worldwide, passionate fan bases–communities of fellow adherents–who love nothing more than discussing and sharing their passions for their beloved texts. You can find local groups that meet in person, or join online “communities,” usually spearheaded by one influencing mouthpiece, to which you can subscribe and engage in the conversations and speculations that abound there. No matter your interests, there are those who share them, and becoming a part of groups that do can lessen the senses of loneliness and isolation that are so prevalent in our society today. I personally advocate for in-person connections as much as possible, but parasocial connection, so long as it does not become obsessive or all consuming, can also fill the belongingness void.

As we’ve discussed, belonging comes in many shapes today, but one community to which we all universally belong is the collective of humankind. If you feel lonely or isolated, there is no greater feeling than helping even one other member of that greater community feel like they belong too. Someone out there is struggling worse than you are. Can you find them, reach out to them, and remind them that they are a part of that great human community? Can you remind them that not only is it there for them, but other members of it need them and what they too have to offer? Sure, it can sometimes seem like everyone we encounter is somehow against us and that no one understands us–that we are alone out here. Who else to turn to to help dispel that notion than Marcus Aurelius:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own–not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions. (Aurelius 17)

We all belong to one another. We have a duty to work for and with one another for the betterment of every human being who occupies this planet with us. So many are suffering, especially today. Here in this electronically interconnected world, we ironically are more isolated, anxious, and lonely than ever. We have forgotten how to live; we just watch others on screens as they chronicle the lives they wish they were living, all the while feeling worse about ourselves because everyone else seems to have it all together. Well, they don’t. We need to rediscover ourselves and learn how to live for one another again. We can’t fix everything or save everyone, but we can reach out to those in our immediate spheres of influence and help them to remember that they too belong to the greater community. We can bask in our victories together, suffer our losses together, learn and grow together. Who can you reach out to today to remind them of this? We are only as alone as we believe ourselves to be.

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Works Cited:
Allen, Kelly Ann. “The Science Behind Our Need to Belong: Insights into the History, Present, and Future of Belonging Research.” Psychology Today, 3 February 2022. Accessed 12 March 2024.

Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Trans. By Gregory Hays. New York: The Modern Library, 2002.

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