Belonging is about a willingness to engage, not exclude
For many young people, and some older ones as well, belonging is paramount. Whether the specific group is an exclusive club at Harvard or a gang in the inner city, belonging is the most important thing in their lives.
An oft-told story is that our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, admitted to his wife Eleanor that being rejected by Porcellian (considered Harvard’s top club) “was the unkindest cut in his entire life,” especially since his distant cousin Teddy (Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th U.S. president) had been a member.
With its first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, whowas appointed in 2007, and Rakesh Khurana, its first Indian-American dean, Harvard has been trying to dismantle the “final clubs,” as the exclusive, male-only (and largely white) organizations are called — no easy feat, considering that the clubs go back to the 1700s. Porcellian, for example, was founded in 1791; its motto is “Dum vivimus vivamus,” roughly translated as “while we live, let’s live it up.”
Totally unsympathetic to them and their mottoes, Ms. Faust contends that the clubs — and there are eight of them (down from 11 in the 1960s) — contribute to “gender discrimination, gender assumptions, privilege, and exclusivity.” All of which comes down to belonging.
Many, if not most, of the young men who are tapped for these clubs come from lives of privilege. Indeed, many of their fathers were club members. Arriving at Harvard isn’t enough; surrounded by students as smart or smarter, perhaps better-looking or more accomplished and richer, the need to belong to a similar group is strong.
On the other hand, or at the other end of the spectrum, one could say, poor young people with few opportunities and from broken homes may be drawn to gangs in order to belong. We’re all human.
Says Cameron Miles, director of Mentoring Male Teens in the ’Hood, “When young people have no guidance at home, which often angers them, they look for love and acceptance in all the wrong places.” They may succumb to adult predators — that is, pedophiles or traffickers — but most likely they will join a gang, willing to sell drugs, even kill someone, in order to belong.
Isn’t that how ISIS gets its young recruits? Mike Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, now working for Hillary Clinton, stated during a recent interview with Charlie Rose that the youths who join ISIS are not so much embracing ISIS because of its ideology but because of their sense of alienation. ISIS represents to these disaffected, unhappy, insecure young people a chance, finally, to belong, despite knowing they may be risking death.
But the need for belonging can be found among youngsters everywhere. As I was writing this piece, I thought back to my own youth. In sixth and seventh grades, there were four girls in my class who called themselves “the clique.”
On the surface, each girl could not have been more different. Marguerite was very smart; her parents were socialists — or communists, as some said — and were nearly always traveling or organizing for some cause. Marta was overweight and unattractive. Her mother, known as a gourmet cook, was constantly entertaining. Guests were always arriving at or departing from the Princeton Junction train from New York to New Jersey, to Marta’s house. Jenny was pretty and well developed; she always had a boyfriend. Her mother would sleep until noon, then play cards in the afternoon and at night. People said she drank. Finally, there was Mary, who struggled mightily just to learn the basic catechism for her first Holy Communion. She was quiet and shy and had four older siblings. Both her parents worked long hours in a garment factory.
Obviously, what each girl lacked was a mother who would be there for her. And so, as different as each was, being part of a clique, shutting out and being rude to everyone else, gave these girls a sense of belonging.
Similarly, many club members today feel threatened by outsiders, who they often believe will not understand them or whom they themselves don’t understand. Nevertheless, our society has grown more diverse; our world, with the advent of the Internet, closer.
As a result, our success will depend not on belonging to a like-minded group but on our willingness to engage with people different from us and in being secure enough to reach out, yet stand on our own.