A Sense of Belonging


Class of 2018

9 July 2018

As our bus passed through the Tanzanian countryside, we were stopped by a funeral procession of hundreds of villagers, each preceding or following the casket of the departed. Van, one of our Tanzanian guides, told us that every villager’s funeral is attended by every village male. Everyone, when they die, is honored as the individual they were. Their death is recognized by all.

As the days passed, it became clearer that funerals in rural Tanzania are a product of something far more profound in Tanzanian culture: an emphasis on recognizing, respecting, and caring for each individual. It is shameful when a rural Tanzanian doesn’t have a relationship with most of the people in their village. It is expected that new arrivals in villages are known and provided for. When your relatives are in trouble and you are able to help, then you should. It is rude not to greet the people you pass on the street.

Maybe it is no surprise that I find it normal to be empty of a sense of belonging to a community, . . .

I don’t know my next door neighbors. My relationships with my relatives, with a few exceptions, are distant and formal. I feel pressure to ignore the people I pass. I go for long periods without talking to my friends. Maybe it is no surprise that I find it normal to be empty of a sense of belonging in a community, larger than myself, that I care for which cares for me in turn. I only notice it through contrast, in the rare moments when it’s there.

It does not have to be this way, though for a lot of people it is. A statistic commonly taught in government classes is that, even though roughly the same number of people are bowling, more and more are bowling alone. Americans are becoming more and more isolated from each other.

If we weren’t social animals, this might not be so bad. But we need other people, for connection with others, for a sense of belonging in something other and more than ourselves, for things to love. We need other people to give us meaning.

But I don’t live in Tanzania, where I’d be pressured by my culture to stay in my communities. Back home, the emphasis often goes the other way. And I don’t have much of a community right now. So it is on me, and me alone, to create and be a part of my relationships with other people. There is absolutely nothing, but me, that stops me from succeeding or failing.       

We need other people to give us meaning.

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