My Father’s Passing
A few months ago, I wrote about my father’s life.
In writing that obituary, I realized that the 41 years he spent in the Indian Air Force didn’t simply represent “employment”, “a job”, for him. It was where he belonged, in a deep way. And while he lived for 32 years more after retiring from the Air Force, that belonging was a thread throughout his life.
My father benefited in many ways from this sense of belonging. It gave him purpose. It gave him close lifelong friendships. It gave him a sense of contributing to a greater whole.
Modern life doesn’t present the same opportunities for belonging that existed in generations past. This vacuum is a defining characteristic of our age.
What is Belonging?
Here’s how I define belonging: being united with people I like and care for in support of a cause that has meaning far beyond my time on earth. My father got that from the Air Force, as do many long-serving military personnel.
Belonging, in this sense, is different from identity. Identity is something I am. I’m an Indian-American. I am a venture capitalist. I am a Bay Area resident. These attributes do not evoke belonging in the sense that I described above.
Why Does It Matter?
Belonging is deeply important. There is a body of research around this topic called self-determination theory. Self-determination allows people to feel that they have control over their choices and lives, which in turn leads to psychological health and well-being.
The theory postulates that there are three components of self-determination: autonomy, mastery and belonging.
I get autonomy from my work, as many people do -- whether I work for someone else or not, I have a degree of freedom in my work life. Mastery I get partially from work, but also from other choices I have made, such as a commitment to lifelong learning in different forms.
But where do I get belonging?
God And The Office?
Religion and work no longer provide the avenues for belonging that were available to our forefathers.
In an increasingly secular world, and without the same certainty about employment, many of us feel like we don’t belong to anything.
Even for those who are religious — and I have many such folks in my life — the sense of belonging feels fragmented.
As for work: connecting your sense of belonging to your workplace is a fraught thing to do. It begins to tie your sense of self-esteem to what you do for a living, which is unwise.
I believe this is one reason so many rich people appear much less happy than one would expect -- they belong to nothing other than their work and the accumulation and display of wealth and status, and these are ultimately hollow things.
I believe it is important, for one’s happiness and equanimity, to feel a deep sense of belonging.
After having spent most of my life behaving exactly like everyone else in my peer group — in other words having the same anxious drives and ambitions that I am now poking holes in — I have, over the last several years, sought to find belonging where I can.
One place that I find it is at my alma mater, Penn. Only two kinds of human institutions have longevity measured in centuries: organized religions, and great educational institutions. And the latter, for all their failings, are perhaps the last structured path to social mobility in our civilization.
I am deeply engaged with Penn. It connects me with ideas, people, and causes that I care about more than my own finite existence.
Another place I have begun to find belonging is in the cause that drives my work (investing in companies that help create a more sustainable planet).
Here the belonging comes not from the work — it comes from that sense of community with others in the ecosystem who share my goals. And there is no goal that could be “larger than myself” than the entire planet 😀.
A final possibility for belonging comes from a new journey of learning that I embark on next week. This journey begins with a small cohort of similarly-minded seekers interested in humanistic ideas. I am cautiously hopeful that over a period of years, this will become a real community that I belong to and draw inspiration and sustenance from, united in a search for larger truths.
Three avenues for belonging feels about enough for one lifetime! The last two are works in process — only time will tell if these will have sustained meaning for me.
If there is a message in all that I have written above, it is simply this: belonging is an elemental human need, and in the modern world, we have to be very “intentional” about finding it.
Where do you belong?