Since it's been what I've been thinking about recently, what follows are some thoughts on belonging
How we fit in is expressed through our outward appearance. People who believe similar things sometimes express that though their clothes. The female religious head-scarf is one common example of how common belief manifests itself visually. It may sometimes seem that modern western people choose not to express any group identity with clothes. But even when people go to garish lengths to stand out from the crowd, they are actually expressing a form of group membership too. It's the anti-group group. Take the 'goths' for example. They typically dress in black and sport death-themed designs on their clothing. Although different from most people, they still express a belonging to a certain group of people and ideas. They may stand out among their family, but like everyone else who wears clothes, they are expressing how they belong to something larger.
As we get older and are granted more freedom, we seek to establish ourselves in the world apart from family. Our kin are beside us for our younger years, but we know we can't stay with them forever. So, how do we know where to turn when we are ready? How can we trust other people to cooperate with us? It's said that how we establish a kindred relationship with those outside of the family we are born to is one of the biggest questions in life. In many societies this process is achieved through rituals and rite of passage ceremonies. The Christian confirmation and the Jewish Bar Mitzvah are popular examples. These practices are about taking an individual and connecting him to a larger group, often with an emphasis on responsibility and an expectation of a certain amount of conformity. Religions take people from a family oriented identity and integrate them into a community of believers, allowing them to connect meaningfully to a large number of people.
It's curious that such group bonding happens in groups smaller than religions. Returning to our previous example, how does one become a 'goth'? Clearly some mechanism takes place to transition a person from being family-oriented to group-oriented. My suspicion is that art has a significant role in binding people together, particularly music; It is communal, affects the emotions and it expresses a belief through it's lyrics. It's easy to imagine that a young person seeking to belong to an external group finds it through an experience of music, at a festival perhaps, or in a bedroom while high on dope. Whatever it is, things happen to bind people together, creating an identity in common between people.
Groups are defined by two things; who they are, and who they are not. For the goth, by being a wearer of mainly black clothes, he is by necessity mainly not a wearer of clothes of other colours. Time spent rocking out to blackened ultra-doomy death metal cannot also be spent enjoying Madam Butterfly. To choose a group with which to belong is to choose certain practices, and exclude others.
Loyalty and betrayal are important elements of groups. When someone is seen as betraying the group it can sometimes mean shame and exclusion. This is well known to everyone. You can imagine a young boy who is forced by his mother to wear smart clothes to attend a family function and is spotted by his goth group on the way there. The next time they see the boy they start to mock; he deviated from their group's expectations and exposed the fact that his commitment runs only cotton-deep, giving the group a reason to ridicule and exclude. We all know, of course, that most of the rest of the group would behave just as the boy did if their own mother told them to as well. It is usually just playful joking they engage in that serves to mildly reprimand the deviant, and increase commitment to the group. It's fairly normal and is often characterised as locker room banter and such things. However, it's easy to imagine how it can get out of control. There may be the odd member who is seriously committed to the identity of the group. Among youths, this might be the one who has the weaker relationships to his family at home, and thus clings on to the group identity most firmly. He might demonstrate the most hostility, perhaps out of resentment or jealousy that the other's families have provided them with a solid enough alternative identity for them to fall back upon should the group fail, whereas his own parents have not. Or maybe he has an unusually acute inclination towards communal groups and the desire for them to succeed. Whatever the offence or punishment, and whoever carries out the punitive measure, loyalty and betrayal play a significant role in groups. Obviously, what clothes are worn is a relatively trivial example. In larger and more serious groups it can come down to differences in beliefs they express and the way they operate in the world that can goad a far more serious punishment.
I have here laid out some thoughts about how groups might form (rituals), how they express themselves (visually) and how they maintain order and punish deviation (mockery). So, what of it?
We are all individuals
"We are all individuals" was chanted by a group of people in a film by comedy group Monty Python called The Life of Brian. It was said in response to Brian, the mislabelled messiah, telling them they've no need for a leader and they should all just be themselves. It is humorous because exposes how sheep-like we truly are. Even if we attempt to be individuals, we are still indistinct from other people by the fact that they are doing the same.
You cannot choose whether you join a group. You will be put in a group regardless. You might think "I will go my whole life without joining a group", but then you will just be in the people who didn't choose a group group, which ironically is actually a rather large group, albeit disorganised and useless.
So how do you choose which group to belong to? You have your family. Check. Your friends. Check. Your work. Check. Your town. Check. Your country. Check. Your planet. Check. But how useful are they for defining who you really are? Which of us truly feels that these temporary arrangements are sufficient to confer enough meaning into their lives?
When your family dies, you are no longer a son, daughter, brother or sister. You are no longer who you were when your friends leave to be occupied elsewhere. You're no longer an employee if you lose your job. You may have been born in a certain town or country, but what does that even mean anymore since people so readily move from place to place, rarely speaking to the people around them, let alone thinking forming meaningful groups. When all else is gone, who are you?
Who can you trust?
The best news I ever heard was that I could still be somebody in the absence of all of these things. That regardless of my situation in life I had a definite identity. That news was the gospel of Jesus Christ. It told me that if I wanted it I had membership of the best kind of group: God's group, a group that I could join for free, despite what I had been a part of in the past; despite what I wore and who my family were. I could start afresh. It is a group that understands very well that people do betray each other, but it's also one that can welcome you back with love, not mockery, because all the punishment and reprimanding had been directed onto someone else instead. And that's the important thing. Not only was the punishment put on someone else, but he died because of it. And not only did he die; but he came back from the dead.