One of my favorite columnists and weekly guests on the PBS Newshour, David Brooks, authored an interesting read called “The Social Animal.” In essence the book tells a story of two people from their childhood to when they meet and their travails as a couple, offering some social science input on why we do the things we do. It is more than a novel, but less than a textbook, so it is indeed an illuminating read. In the book, one of his characters discovers a Greek word called “thumos” which seems to identify in one word a need to be both recognized and belong to some sort of affiliation. Per Brooks, we don’t have an English word that wraps both of these human needs into one. Yet, the word thumos explains so much when we look at our society and why we do the things we do.
We all have a need and desire to be recognized. We want and need others to recognize the effort or gesture we made. As a quick example, as blog readers and writers, think of how your spirit is uplifted when someone recognizes a post you have made. The fact that someone else is taking the time to read and acknowledge what you wrote is meaningful. Yet, the word thumos takes it a step further. People have a need to belong to something, be part of a group whether it is a high school, religious, political, community, sports or some other group of people.
The example from Brooks’ book is the male character discovers in high school the need to be recognized for how he leads his life, while still having a sense of belonging. In high school, with hormones raging and communication filters not fully developed, kids can get ostracized quickly for not being part of a group of people, whether it be the popular, athletic, academic, band, anti-establishment, etc. crowd. The ones who tend to avoid this belonging tend to get ostracized by all groups, whereas if they belong to at least one group, have a home base.
I mention this now as we have a heightened sense of grouping in this country and abroad which has created an unhealthy tension of “we/ they” finger-pointing. The high school example is a good one, as some of the behavior is very high school-ish, even middle-school-ish, while other behaviors are even criminal. Recognition is very important and is a great motivator and validator in all our lives. Yet, we can be recognized for good behaviors as well as bad behaviors. As a parent, one of the key lessons I have tried to teach my kids and try to live by each day is “your name is the most important thing you have.” When people say your name, what do you want people to say about you – is he a decent, honorable person or is he a jerk? One of my favorite movie lines is from “Rob Roy,” where the title character says “honor is a gift you give yourself.” That is the best code to live by. In today’s debates over issues between people of different political persuasions, the best thing that can be said about anyone is he or she listens to the arguments of others whether he or she is in agreement. Their conduct is both civil and honorable.
The need to belong is also important. It should not define us, as we are usually an amalgamation of different groups we belong to, yet it often can be taken to either a healthy or unhealthy extreme depending on the group. A healthy extreme might be a woman who is so devout she becomes a nun. She is taking a vow to live her life devoted to God and helping others. On the unhealthy side is when the group is arguably called a hate group, be it some form of White Supremacist, Al Qaeda or youth gang, where the groups recruits impressionable people who have some level of disenfranchisement with society. These impressionable people are taught to blame others for their lot in life and to hate. As social science has told us clearly, we are not born racist or bigoted; we have to be taught.
Using Al Qaeda as an example, for adult men to be able to convince a teenage boy to strap on a hidden, suicide bomb to become a personified weapon is absolutely criminal and horrifying. These youths are given the penultimate brainwashing of belonging saying if you commit suicide and kill other infidels you will earn your place in heaven. This is one area where we need women to gain a greater voice in a male dominated religion so that they can tell these men what they are doing is wrong. Unfortunately, we have this behavior elsewhere with other affiliations. So Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda are not the lone set of criminal groups.
The recent shooting that occurred in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin is the latest example of a hate crime by a group where the shooter had a sense of recognition and belonging. The shooting in Norway of the youths on the island along with the bombing at the downtown government office is another. These killers and others are led to believe their victims are different from you and are the cause of your problems (or society’s problems) and should be eliminated. Or, the groups can become so unhealthy in a cult like way, where rational reasoning is squelched. How else could a group of people be taught to drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid by Reverend Jim Jones? How could a gang member be taught he has to commit a litany of severe crimes to be a member?
With our innate need for recognition and belonging, how can we encourage people to have a sense of right and wrong about all the decisions they make alone and in a group? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but have a few thoughts. I would love to hear the thoughts of others, as I see this as a broader problem. For conversation starters:
– We must ground our children, leading by example, with a sense of right and wrong. The aforementioned quote from “Rob Roy” is one example. Yet, we need to openly discuss behaviors that are wrong that we witness or that they might do. The minister who want to put gays behind an electrified fence is an easy lesson of inappropriate behavior. The ministry I was taught would look to the Golden Rule as the greatest rule to live by.
– We need to be civil to one another in our daily interactions and expect the same from others. In fact, if someone refuses to be civil after you asked him to do so, exit the conversation. Yet, with that said, remain civil and you will be heard. My grandmother used to say, “The louder you shout, the worse your argument.” You could modernize this with those who are called “trolls” as they intentionally upset blog conversations. When you see inappropriate blog discussion write “This is inappropriate discussion.”
– We need to continue to teach children (and adults) to think critically. They need to ask questions and have a healthy sense of skepticism about what they read, hear and witness. Group-speak is a powerful mechanism, so people need to see things for what they are. Just because someone is a minister does not make them right on all counts. Political parties can stridently convince people that they are 100% correct and the other side is 100% wrong. As an Old Fart, I have never seen a one-sided communication problem.
– We need to shine a spotlight on hate groups. Make as many people aware that they exist and here is what they believe. The best thing to come out of the Sikh Temple shooting is a greater awareness that the Sikhs are a peaceful, hard-working spiritual group. Talk about the hate groups and other groups with your children. Show them you do not condone the former behavior and note we each have different ways of being devout, so we need an open mind to all religions.
– As members of society and with an eye toward “it takes a village” to raise a child, if you witness a child who is at risk on any issue, talk to the child and see if there are problems. Maybe you know the parent or a teacher or principal who could help. When you witness hateful group-speak, intervene. Dr. Wayne Dyer uses the term “defend the absent.” If someone or some group is being run down, he would defend the person not there.
These are a few ideas borrowing from the many mentors I have had and books and movies I have enjoyed. I have noted in earlier posts becoming a mentor, tutor, big brother/ sister, volunteer, etc. may be a way for us to place ourselves in these conversations with children and others in need. The recognition and belonging affiliated with helping others is the greatest gift to yourself and others. Please share your thoughts and ideas.