What you think about yourself is much more important than what others think of you.
~ Marcus Annaeus Seneca
It is accepted wisdom that the road to happiness requires us to follow our hearts and our own conscience without regard to the opinions of others. Yet, we are human, and we want to be accepted, at least somewhere. We want to find our tribe. We want to belong, to fit in. We want to find our human family, which may or may not include our blood family.
It is much harder today to figure out where we, as individuals, fit in, because our society has not allowed everyone to do so. There are entire groups of people who have been disenfranchised because they do not fit into the ideal box that our economy requires: to be a “good worker.” And as jobs continue to be replaced by technology, more people are feeling left behind. Where do I fit in? What do I have to offer?
All human beings have a purpose and something to offer, though you may not be able to put a dollar sign on it. We must get beyond this thinking of economic value. In our tribal past, every member had something to contribute. The young contributed joy and the promise of the future. The older generations helped care for the young and used their collective wisdom to benefit the tribe. The disabled contributed as well, often in a more sacred and spiritual way. They were recognized as special. This also includes the mentally ill, whom we now stick in an institution (but only after they present a danger), or allow to wander homeless and self-medicating with illegal street drugs, or authorities end up killing them when a misunderstanding or situation escalates, which happens far too frequently.
We label people instead of including them, and the schizophrenic of today was probably the shaman or seer of the past. Many say they are “crazy,” but they are just psychic in a different way. In other societies, these people would have been trained to use their gifts in a healthy way; now we stigmatize them and prefer not to have contact with them. Given the number of tragedies that occur each year for the mentally ill, what is certain is that our current mindset about them is not helping them.
But you don’t have to be old, young, physically or mentally challenged, or otherwise different to feel like you’re out of place. I suspect most average people feel that way most of the time. Consider what our society asks us to conform to: work hard, earn a good living, work harder, take two weeks off a year, get a mortgage, pay your bills, shop til you drop, have a family that you spend a relatively small number of hours with, retire—maybe?, and die. It’s interesting that we think of more tribal cultures as primitive, yet they have far more time for family, art, and culture than the modern person in an industrialized nation.
We have lost our sense of connection with one another in the modern age. We no longer think in tribal terms; we think in terms of ourselves as an individual. But no man (or woman) is an island, and it’s no wonder we can’t figure out where we fit.
This dilemma is impacting our young men the most. Most mass murders are committed by disconnected young, white men who don’t know where they fit in and have given up caring. The despair that these men must feel in their souls is probably not unlike the feelings of Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein:
Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth.
Why do young people join gangs, even when they must know how incredibly destructive that path is? Because for the first time in their lives, they have a sense of belonging, of fitting in somewhere. We can do a better job of creating alternatives.
It’s good and healthy not to worry about the opinions of others, but we all need our Core of Care, our tribe, in order to feel safe and loved. Spiritual growth is a private, individual journey, but it isn’t really possible in a vacuum. We all need our supporters and helpers, our catalysts in growth, in order to achieve any of this. We need connection. We need to feel connected. Isolation leads to a sense of having no purpose, of having no value. It leads to despair, and despair leads to desperation.
We can indeed reclaim our tribe. We can indeed include everyone and not judge them by some perceived economic value. We can build our communities beyond the nuclear family model, which just isn’t sufficient. Get to know your neighbors. See the value in every single human being, no matter how valueless they may feel. While you may not want every person to sit at your table, there is a table for everyone out there somewhere. And you might be surprised who ends up being seated at yours. Many have entertained angels unaware, or, perhaps, you are the angel today.