We are the only ones with a choice.
There are systems all around us. From the subatomic to the solar, systems function according to immutable principles. Rules like “don’t bump into each other,” “cooperate with your neighbor,” and “stay with the group” keep systems working for the benefit of each component and the whole (video: How Do Schools of Fish Swim In Harmony). None of the different parts of any of those systems ever think about whether or not they should follow those rules because they don’t have a choice. Those rules are built into their survival mechanisms. They are not handed down from a boss or bureaucrat. They do not argue about or compare their rules. They never think one single conscious thought about their rules.
That’s a big difference between human systems and systems made of atoms, cells, organs, animals, plants, geography, climates, planets and galaxies.
We get to choose to follow our natural rules. Or not.
We can follow some and not others. We can make up our own rules. We can pretend like there are no rules. I would argue that we take full advantage of all these choices, and in every case I can imagine we can trace our individual and societal problems back to choices that do not honor the natural rules governing human systems.
Scientists like B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura suggest that our behavior, our thinking, our emotions and even our personalities are rooted in our survival. Certainly, this would seem to fit with the theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. We think, act and feel the way we do in order to survive. It may not feel like a battle for survival every time we choose who to be in relationship with, how to spend our time, what job or school to choose or how to decorate our living space.
It is a battle nonetheless. The pertinent question though is who or what are we fighting?
The untamed world is a dangerous place. and fFor those who do not have their basic needs met, the need for survival is a more conscious experience. When we are fed, sheltered and protected from danger we begin making different kinds of choices. Perhaps this is an indicator that life is about more than survival. I hope so. I hope that there is more meaning for us than just making it.
How can we use our choice for discovering or making meaning? If choice is the big difference between how we participate in the human system and how all the other parts and pieces of life participate in their systems (which are interdependent with ours), then what do we do with it? How do we decide what to choose?
This is a bit of a philosophical question, but I believe the answer may be reliably revealed in the patterns of other systems. Other systems, just like our human system, are made up of interconnected parts. Each part has a particular identity. What the part does and what it is are inextricably linked. Neutrons, electrons and protons do not fight about who is going to be positively charged and who is going to be negatively charged and who is going to be neutral. The parts of a cell do not line up for job tranfers. Organs in your body do what they do because of what they are not because of payscale, benefits, or how it will look on their Insta-feed. These truths show up in all living systems. Interactions and roles are based on actual identity. Everything fits together, provides irreplaceable value, and relies on the rest of the system’s work to provide for their needs.
It is supposed to work like that in a human system. However, with the unique added opportunity of free will, we can decide to work against the system. We often do. Maybe it’s because we are uninformed. Maybe it’s because we are damaged. Maybe choice for humans is just the next step of the evolutionary process. Maybe all three and more. For whatever reason, we fight against our fundamental need.
I don’t think it’s survival. Survival is good, and I’m as interested in a Bin Burger, a cozy Air BnB, and procreation as the next guy, but if all I get out of life is an opportunity to eat better food, live in a nicer house, and have better sex, then I’m going to max out or be frustrated. And I’m going to die having only focused on myself. Seems like life ought to mean more than just grabbing everything I can before I leave.
Even more foundational than Maslow’s safety and physiological needs is Adler’s theory of belonging. Our fundamental need is to belong. In order for something to be fundamental for humans, it must pass *nine different tests. Belonging does. One could even argue that at least some part of the need to belong is rooted in survival. We have, in the past, needed to belong to a group so we could increase our capacity for provision of shelter and sustenance. Also, procreation is not really possible by yourself.
Our need for belonging in our human system can also be compared to the way other living systems work. In our case, our experience of belonging is based on the same three things as in other systems; identity, value, and needs. First, each of us is someone… special and unique. I hesitate to say that because both of those words have been appropriated to mean something different than what I’m saying. I’m not trying to be cute or condescending and I’m not suggesting you are a snowflake that can do whatever you put your mind to. That’s a terribly damaging perspective on individuality. I’m saying each person fits into the human system, their community, in a way that only they fit. No matter how damaged or misunderstood; we all fit together. Our true identity, our core essence, who we actually are, fills a role that only we can fill. And this identity has a value to the rest of the system. Just like an electron, a mitochondria, a liver, a beaver, a stand of aspen, a cloud, the stratosphere, and the moon. They are all of value because of what they are. We humans are the same.
It is often difficult to understand who we are or who another person is because we have misunderstood our identity. Perhaps when it was being developed and revealed in our most formative years, we experienced trauma instead of nurturing. Perhaps we were put in a too-narrow, minimizing social category because of appearance, intelligence, religion, culture, or gender or some other less-than-the-whole part of our identity. In Western European culture, we put so much emphasis on individuality that we often misunderstand (or miss altogether) ourselves and each other and how we fit together. This undermines the third natural element of belonging; our needs.
In every system, each part has an identity and a value, but in order to thrive in their role, they rely on the other parts of the system thriving in theirs. Of course that’s what we want, right? More than just surviving, we want to thrive. I do. I want to find and immerse myself in the magic of life. The expansive, mind blowing beauty of being fully and completely alive. I’ve tasted small morsels and it’s just too magnificent to settle for food, shelter, and sex. No matter how good, they are too limited.
We need each other. We are supposed to function as a system of interdependent identities. Like any other system, our contribution is one glorious piece. The incredibleness of the whole is the experience of each one contributing to an exponentially more glorious expression. This is why a concert, or a great dinner party, or being part of a humanitarian relief effort is so satisfying. We get to experience belonging in the human system. We express our identity by singing and cheering together, sharing food and relationally connecting conversation, or helping those who need our united help. Our identity is valued, what we need to thrive is cooperatively shared. It’s supposed to be like that all the time. Even in the mundane.
This is what we should choose; to magnify belonging, to believe in it and place it above our dangerously safe, self-serving separateness. We should seek out belonging, invest in it, trust it and protect it. It is a matter of more than survival. It is how we become fully alive humans. Part of something bigger, more beautiful, more powerful, and more sustainable than we could ever be alone.
I’ll explore how we can do this in my next post.
*Test for Fundamental:
1. Always impacts
2. Changes behavior
3. We think about it
4. Absence = damage
5. We work for it
7. Not a byproduct
8. Affects many behaviors
9. Broad implications
Baumeister, Roy F., and Mark R. Leary. “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation.” Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (May 1995): 497–529.
I write about belonging, storytelling, community building, prevention, trauma, resilience, neuroscience, and epigenetics.