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Belonging Is Our Blessing, Tribalism Is Our Burden

Belonging is a crucial human need, but it can descend into dangerous tribalism.

We humans are a social species, tribal by nature. We’re given to gathering and communing in familiar groups. “Belonging,” our capacity and need for empathy, compassion, and communication, is in our DNA.

We are the most evolved of all species on earth, the most intelligent and creative of God’s creatures. Our achievements in the arts and sciences and many other endeavors are extraordinary. If we so wished, we could heartily congratulate ourselves on all we have accomplished.

Unfortunately, we tribal humans have a “dark side,” ironically also related to our social relationships: We are as belligerent and brutal as any other animal species. Our species, homo sapiens, is indeed creative and loving, but it is also destructive and hostile.

Tribal animosities have always been part of our history, either between antagonistic countries or enemies within each nation-state. Every country has close-knit tribes or groups who harbor “rational” reasons to praise themselves and hate others, usually based on prejudicial lore rooted in religion, ethnicity, race, economics, or politics.

Tribal conflicts on a large scale are replicated in interactions between individuals. I knew a lovely American couple, she of Serb background, he of Croatian extraction, happily married for over two decades with two children. When war between Serbia and Croatia erupted in the '90s, memories of old painful ethnic conflicts were rekindled in bitter arguments at home, and they divorced two years later.

Similar events have transpired in other relationships, mirroring the ingrained hatreds between groups of origin. Cities and countries where antagonistic populations learned to live in cooperative peace, often re-descended into tribal violence. Examples abound: Harmony once prevailed in Sarajevo (Serbs and Croats), Belfast (Protestants and Catholics), Bagdad (Shiites and Sunnis), Rwanda (Hutu and Tutsi), Cyprus (Greeks and Turks), Kashmir (Muslims and Hindus).

As inspiring as humanity is, it appears that our “natural” propensities to anger, hate, and tribalism often dominate our benevolent thoughts and behaviors. In times of social unrest, ethnic and racial biases appear to “trump” (used advisedly) amicability and peace. This is especially so when fueled by inflammatory religious leaders or political demagogues.

A sense of belonging is a cornerstone of "The Four B's” (including being, believing, and benevolence), the criteria we use to evaluate the quality of our lives.

Belonging is the extent to which we feel appreciated, respected, and cared for as a member of a group of close people. These groups vary widely and might comprise family, friends, colleagues, teammates, coworkers, congregationalists, or platoons. When we belong in these groups, we share values, rituals, and attitudes, we experience feelings of warmth and welcome, and our lives are enriched.

Studies show that a sense of belonging is related to feelings of well-being and better health. Conversely, loneliness is known to be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. But while we value the importance of belonging, dangers lurk when there is an absence of benevolence. Excessive group cohesiveness and feelings of superiority breed mistrust and dislike of others and can prevent or destroy caring relationships. Estrangement can easily beget prejudice, nativism, and extremism. These are the very hallmarks of zealous tribalism which has fueled bloodshed and wars over the millennia.

The recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Harvard’s Steven Pinker, is reassuring in its message that human-perpetrated violence has actually diminished in international and civil wars as well as in domestic and family settings. I’m less optimistic, however, in light of the current social climate in the United States and elsewhere.

The combination of tribal enmities and weapons of mass destruction are as dangerous a “perfect storm” as ever existed, because we humans now have the capacity to annihilate ourselves. As the satirical troubadour Tom Lehrer sang years ago, "What Nature doesn't do to us will be done by our fellow man.”

Belonging is a boon to our existence, ennobling our lives, but Tribalism is a bane to our existence, destroying that very ennoblement.

We humans have crucial choices to make: Whether we live together in harmony, with civility, respect, and empathy (positive emotional footprint), or whether we choose to live in perpetual animosity and conflict.

Our very survival awaits our decision.