Sociology is a challenging field of study. It frustrated me. I did not understand it because the subject was too subjective.
How does one research a topic with so many variables? Human beings are too unpredictable and hard to classify, especially when it comes to their behaviors. Their needs and beliefs.
Researchers prefer patterns. Systems. Cultural rules. Such as, “Given these circumstances human beings are likely to behave like ____________.”
In American society, whatever is written in the blank has a good chance of being wrong. That is because the ties that bind us together are unraveling exponentially. It has given our nation multidimensional characteristics, especially when it comes to belonging. Historically, this situation in our young and diverse nation is not unusual.
The question can be answered more accurately when studying smaller, isolated tribal groups. Especially those in which survival depends on a unity of belief and action.
In smaller tribes of human beings many behaviors are so enculturated they are not only predictable but expected. Also seen among the Amish and other small, sectarian groups in the United States and around the world.
However, most Americans cringe at living such a life. Freedom is our mantra. Freedom is our Constitutional right. Don’t tread on me.
“Belonging” to some folks is a synonym for captivity. Commitments are either avoided or given a contractual exit option. Allegiance is conditional.
For me, the husband of a wife with Alzheimer’s, I am struggling with the disparity between needing freedom and a sense of belonging. The pandemic has exacerbated that struggle everywhere, including my little segment of society.
Months ago, when I believed my wife was stable and well taken care of, I decided to take a trip on my own. Going to a place both of us had on our list of preferred destinations but did not have a chance to take: Costa Rica and the Panama Canal.
It was a National Geographic trip on a small vessel. Regular communication with home was spotty. Only expensive email and a ship-to-shore phone for use in an emergency.
The trip was all I expected it would be. Enjoyable learning experiences. A chance to meet interesting people among the small number of passengers and crew.
I missed having my wife with me. But liked the feeling of freedom I felt hiking through rain forests, seeing new kinds of plants and animals, and enjoying the canal itself.
But I felt something else. A feeling I have had on other occasions. It was a sense of belonging. Like I was part of a wonderful expedition, traveling with people who shared my enthusiasm for the natural world.
Neither my wife nor I felt that way on most other cruises, on floating cities with thousands of passengers. The National Geographic cruise gave me a feeling of intellectual and even academic intimacy.
Perhaps because I, and the other passengers were taking the trip for reasons other than entertainment, eating and socialization.
It made me feel like I belonged to something bigger than myself, in the context of meaning and growth.
It reminded me of an expedition in which I participated as a 15-year-old boy, 168 miles of the Colorado River through the rugged canyons of Utah and Arizona.
Dangerous and exhilarating. Scary and uplifting. I felt unbounded freedom, mixed with a sense of connectedness to my friends and the environment.
It became a rite of passage for me — a kind of purposeful freedom. And it was so physically and mentally engaging I remember thinking, “I belong here.”
Over the years I have had similar experiences. The military. Serving on teaching faculties. Participating with my sons in the Scouting program. Working with my wife and colleagues in a publishing/consulting organization. Staying active with state and national professional organizations.
But now, other than occasional service opportunities through organizations, I do not regularly experience that feeling. With some developing exceptions, I feel neither free nor part of something.
Some of the problem is the pandemic, still raging. But the problem existed before the pandemic.
Possibly associated with the image linked to aging and retirement. Hundreds of advertisements hit us each day touting the wonders of living in a particular retirement community.
Luxury leisure living. Golf, table games, gardening, delicious meals, dancing, entertainment, nearby establishments, and natural wonders to visit. The good life for seniors who deserve nothing but the best.
The claim is freedom, to do what we want to do and when we do it. And we know we belong because we are sitting around a dining table toasting the good life with each other.
So, what is wrong with that? Retirement homes give us freedom to do what we wish, and a sense of belonging in the context of companionship.
Speaking for myself, I neither want nor need that kind of freedom or way of belonging.
What can help me now is much more dynamic. I gain freedom by seeking interesting opportunities and reaching out for them. Writing books and this blog. Searching for and finding opportunities to serve. Probing my own creative abilities to determine more of what I can contribute to the world before I leave it.
Success in any of those activities tells me I have the right to belong. Not to just take up space with others in my community. I am still a worthy member of this world, nation, society, and my own family.
I can feel my wife telling me, in approving tones, that she is proud of me for staying the course. For continuing what the two of us started over 50 years ago.
Continue to seek ways to take care of yourself.
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