Identity and Belonging
‘Knowing where you belong is essential to our sense of identity’
The quest for personal discovery is a journey which every individual must undergo. The development of a sense of self is one of the greatest achievements one can derive from life. Identity is made up of a constellation of characteristics, none more essential than the sense of belonging we feel with others. Humans by nature are social creatures and as such, we all have an instinctual desire for acceptance and community. This is part of the human condition. However, belonging is also dependent on our own sense of identity. Where we belong will often be determined by who we are which is why what we truly search for is a delicate equilibrium between identity and belonging. Without establishing where we belong and who we are, we cannot accomplish an ultimate sense of happiness and fulfilment. ‘Self is not something one finds, it is something one creates’. This notion supports the idea that we all have the ability to shape our own identity. Shaping who we are will lead to the eventual sense of belonging we desire.
Throughout an individual’s life they may decide to alter how society perceives them. This is known as their ‘public face’. Often we mould ourselves to fit in with social norms and behaviour in an attempt to be accepted into a particular group, in which we believe our belonging lies; however, sometimes our search for belonging is not over. In the novel Member of the Wedding by Carson Mcullers, the main character, Frankie, is confused about where she fits into the world. She is consumed by her deep desire to belong. This drives her to believe that her place in life is with her brother. This of course is not the case as her brother is getting married and has no room for Frankie in his marriage. The novel encapsulates the idea that we strive to belong unless we develop an image and behaviour that can be accepted. This means that we cannot know where we belong until we have established our own sense of self, which i why Frankie is oblivious to that there will always be distance between them now that he is getting married. Frankie attempts to change her identity by changing her name, in the hope that it will allow her to better connect with the people she wishes to be with. The ideas expressed in this novel show that an individual must form an identity before following
their innate compulsion to belong.
This novel coincides with Abraham Maslows hierarchy of needs, which maintains that the sense of security and self-esteem associated with belonging is essential in the pursuit of ‘self actualisation’. Maslows theory suggests that ‘belonging’ is far more important than individuality. This theory demonstrates that we must satisfy various ‘meta-needs’ including discovering where we belong, on the long search for our identity. The Amish community in the film Witness, directed by Peter Weir, is seen to prioritise belonging over individuality. All the Amish people dress ‘plain’ which symbolises their high regard for affinity. Rachel is threatened to be shunned from the Amish society if she continues to be involved with an “English” man. It is not conventional for an Amish woman to have feelings for a man form the city, or at least to act on them, and it would result in her becoming an outcast in the community. This is not supported by the rest of the Amish people in the film and Rachel is forced to choose between belonging and individuality. In this film it seems knowing where you belong is crucial in knowing who you are. John Book is the protagonist of the story.
Although he proves himself capable of blending in with the Amish society, Book can not completely change his identity to that of an Amish person. “I’m no Amishman and I’m no farmer! I’m a cop.” To be Amish his morals would have to change. John Book knows that he can not belong there which is why he goes back to the city at the end of the film. Witness depicts belonging as an essential part of identity. Our sense of belonging is key to our quest of personal discovery. A substantial part of who we are is derived from our social environment. From birth we are placed into a set of existing social arrangements, which carry expectations of how we should behave. This ‘social structure’ acts as a constraint on those who are a part of it, even though they might not be aware of it. We are born into a world that provides standards and guidelines on how we should live and what is acceptable. Of course, as we are conditioned to live our lives according to the values of the community we grow up in, it is not difficult to abide by these rules. Its easy to see how we would simply not fit into a society thats values, morals and beliefs were different from our own. To possibly adapt to the order in which this society would live, we would need to change our identity, thus creating a false sense of belonging. We must constantly grow and adapt with changes in society if we are to belong.
Australian poet Bruce Dawe demonstrates how belonging is dependent on our sense of self in his poem ‘Flashing of Badges’. The ‘dead beat’ described in this poem is no longer a valued member of todays world. Being an old man who once served the noble purpose of a soldier, his identity has faded with his past. He feels that the younger generations around him are in his debt for his efforts in fighting for their country. He cannot connect or form any relationship in a modern society because his views are not shared. To others he is just an old man begging for money in the street. The identity of the old man is the same as it was in his days of being a soldier, and as the war is over, there is no place in society for him. Hence, this old man can not know where he belongs, and his identity is (or may as well be) non-existent. To know where we belong is to know who we are and where our morals, views and beliefs are shared. To yearn for identity and belonging is a characteristic of humanity. Forming a sense of self is an ongoing and complex process which requires constantly adapting in order to also achieve a sense of belonging.