Just as a cell reflects the organism of which it is a part, each one of us belongs to a network of relationships that give meaning to our steps.
The first time I returned to the town where I was born, I walked its streets like any other tourist. This land was strange to me. He had come out of it in infancy and was coming back into adulthood, fulfilling more of an obligation than out of curiosity.
Little did I care, to say nothing. Did it have something to do with my life? I thought not.
I walked through those unknown streets until I got lost. A group of old men watched my adventures from afar and when they saw me standing up, they approached me to ask whose son I was.
I was surprised, because I was a stranger to them as they were strangers to me, and the question was too personal to answer just like that.
I told them, embarrassed, the name of my parents, and one of them smiled: “I was telling you,” He said, addressing the other elders, it’s a ”. And the ellipsis is the nickname by which my family is known in town.
The man had recognized in me the physical characteristics of my father, whom he remembered at the same age I was then.
Then they asked me some questions and they accompanied me to the address I was looking for: the street where I had been born many years ago.
That world was mine too, in a surprising way.
LIVING BEYOND THE VILLAGE
It happened at the end of the 70s, a decade of great changes, not only social, but also personal.
Authority was questioned by young people who aspired to a different world and, above all, to uninhibited, non-hierarchical, free personal relationships.
You believed that you had little to do with them, that the important links were with your generation, they were those that you were establishing with the group of friends with whom you shared expectations and dreams.
You thought you were part of the world, of the universe, of no concrete place, rather of something abstract, ideas, images. And partly so it was, and so it continued to be.
But since that trip to my hometown, not in the same way anymore. Those elders had placed me in a constellation of relationships that trapped me and that I could never again say had nothing to do with me.
I also belonged to that place, as I belonged to my family and to the vague and elusive universe of which we are all a part, and if I wanted to know who he was, I had to find out why that experience thrilled me.
Over time I have lived in different places and I have been entering new circles of belonging that have enriched me.
Now I know, as the philosopher Simone Weil said, that every human being has the need for multiple roots and that almost the entirety of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life is reached through the environments in which he has felt a part, a member.
Being part of something bigger frees you from loneliness and is an incentive to share and act, to live in society.
Although it has its risks: excessive identification stifles the personality, automates responses, repudiates the contradiction that moves you forward, and limits experiences. The balance, as in so many things, is necessary.
RECOGNITION AND IDENTITY
Membership is not the mere fact of being part of a group. It implies a personal identification, affective ties, the adoption of values, norms, habits and a feeling of solidarity with the other members.
This strength is usually achieved in the first circles of belonging: in the family, among the first friends of adolescence, those related of some kind. And it is completed with that achieved by more subtle belongings, although no less effective: the group social class, the city or the region, the homeland. Or even virtual, like identities, imaginary or not, that many people develop today in the parallel worlds of the internet.
In all those inclusions, in all those circles, we fulfill or seek an essential aspiration of humans: recognition and identity.
Although sometimes what we achieve is an illusion of belonging, and therefore a vain recognition and a brittle identity.
As it happened to me with that feeling so vast and abstract as useless, without working, of universal belonging, it happens today to many people who, looking for their identity, only achieve identifications.
They believe that by dressing or speaking in a way, listening to music, belonging to a certain social network, moving in certain environments they are part of a group that gives them meaning.
But what they often achieve is not a feeling of full belonging, with its rewards, but theatrical masks that serve above all to differentiate themselves from others.
They obtain satisfactions without a doubt because, if not, they would not be integrated into those networks, but in an unstable, ephemeral and changing way, like adhering to a fashion. They favor social play, but hardly the development of personal autonomy.
DO WE LIVE IN A WORLD WITHOUT ROOTS?
Identity, belonging, are (or were) something else before the tribalization of society that began in the 60s and the emergence of the media.
They are (or were) the summit of a prolonged educational and socialization effort by which inclusion in the world was achieved.
To develop our roots, to anchor ourselves in reality, Simone Weil said that we should have a real, active and natural participation in the existence of a community, and that this community, in order to enrich ourselves, should preserve certain treasures of the past and certain forebodings of the future.
Only then do we enjoy a feeling of belonging that project us beyond ourselves and gives fullness to our autonomy and identity.
If we apply a simile of physics, for Simone Weil the feeling of belonging is like strong nuclear energy for the atom: it holds the proton and neutron together in the nucleus and guarantees their integrity.
But the feeling of belonging is not limited to this demanding condition. Other times, just as weak nuclear energy is responsible for radioactivity, for short-range repulsive interaction, we are overwhelmed by feelings of belonging that are as fleeting as they are explosive, liberating, and ecstatic.
They are those experiences that we have all once felt of collective communion during a sporting event, a concert, a historical moment. They seem unimportant, but they can leave indelible marks.
WHAT DOES COLLECTIVE COMMUNION CONSIST OF?
An example is the one recounted by John Carlin in his book The Human Factor (Ed. Seix Barral).
Five years after being released from prison and becoming president, Nelson Mandela found himself in the worst possible scenario: a rugby match for the South African team, made up largely of stocky white Afrikaners and cheered by an audience no less white. until yesterday racist in its majority, and that it considered that such sport and the selection were only theirs.
In the days and hours before there was great hatred in the air and the police feared the worst.
But Nelson Mandela appeared on the field, small, fragile, smiling, in a green shirt and cap, he greeted all the players spontaneously and warmly, naturally, and the tension disappeared.
South Africa won the match and the World Cup, and John Carlin says that that day the world experienced “one of the greatest days of collective joy, redemption and brotherhood” in remembrance.
People, standing in the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, were shouting incessantly: “You are my president. ” It was a moment of collective communion that made peaceful coexistence possible in the African country.
As you can see, and we have all felt it at one time or another, the feeling of belonging is powerful. And for that very reason, subject to manipulations of which sometimes we are not even aware.
An example is an investigation carried out in Belgium and the Netherlands after the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Two groups were created to which the same commented images passed, but with a difference: in one it was emphasized that it was an attack against North America and in the other it was said that it was against Westerners.
The facts were the same, but the first group showed much less empathy with the suffering of the victims than the second.
The explanation is obvious: they did not feel identified with the Americans, but with something more abstract that we call the West. Manipulations like this happen every day.
YOU HAVE TO START WITH THE IMMEDIATE
These two examples, that of Mandela and that of September 11, show us the way to an enriching, balanced feeling of belonging.
It is so when, far from drowning the individual, it empowers him, and far from separating us from others, it brings us closer.
As Edgar Morin said, all truly human development implies a joint development of individual autonomy, community participation and a sense of belonging to the human species.
Maybe that’s what I learned, or better intuited, the day I set foot in my hometown for the first time.
WHAT ABOUT MEMBERSHIP ON THE INTERNET?
The Internet is changing the way many people interact and creating new feelings of belonging.
It allows us to share any habit or affinity, no matter how minor, and create feelings of belonging that overcome all the barriers that until now limited our ability to relate.
It enhances the possibilities of identity, joy and expression that we have, and even allows us to multiply them through options as unsuspected as imaginary personalities in virtual lives (an example would be Second Life).
But it has risks: everything can be too unreal and false.
We need to play and project ourselves and the internet allows us to, but if we only play, if distraction replaces life, we may end up being shadows without reality.
It is what some psychologists call identities in the air, typical of lonely adolescents and adults, who spend hours hooked on the internet, giving way to their repressions and fears, or their dreams and aspirations, but without the counterparts of life.
There are no experiences with its lessons, good and bad, but an infinite world of possibilities in which nothing seems important because everything is virtual.
The human being becomes an imaginary being. But life, with its limitations, is still out there when the computer is turned off, and without real experiences, with its essential load of affectivity, one is less prepared to face it, overcome the challenges it poses and reach emotional maturity.
Relationships become a narcissistic display. Something apparent, which satisfies in the moment and humbles when it disappears and reality gives us a less kind image of ourselves.