Becoming and remaining part of a group is more than a choice. It is a demand of the human psyche. For all the blather about individualism, a tenet of secular American religiosity, belonging is the dominant human social gene. It is as instinctive to human behavior as walking, eating, and copulating. In fact, individualism is not part of the human social genome. It is a relatively modern idea, a philosophy, a choice birthed during the Age of Enlightenment.
More than we need to belong, we want to belong. Belonging to a group fosters good mental health and social cohesion, which is requisite for survival. Unbelonging induces loneliness, which leads to despair. One of the worst punishments that can be imposed on someone for not following a group’s rules is banishment or ostracization. Whether political exile, solitary confinement, or shunning, forced separation from a group or society can cause deep distress and potentially irreparable harm.
While some groups wither away, others last long after current members move away or die. Groups — families, religions — are greater than the sum of their parts and thus hold an even more dominant grip on their members. If and when a member separates from the group, there can be hell to pay for it. That is especially true with cults.
Groups like school classes that are formed by happenstance and have a select, finite number of specific members gradually wither away as nature takes her course. Others like the local Elks or Hotrod Club might or might not fade away when members move on. Friendship groups formed organically eventually die too.
Choosing to detach from a group can be excruciating because the group, whether social or religious, holds power over the individual, and it never likes when a member says, “Tata. Time to go.” Leaving a group is considered the worst form of heresy.
A good friend posed this question to me: “Why do we often hang on to a group after we realize that remaining part of it no longer serves a good purpose and is, therefore, not good for our social or mental health?” Then he added, “It’s the moment when you really admit something no longer works for you. It evolves slowly and you feel it coming. Then you finally admit it and know it. You continue anyway because whatever it is—group, activity, people—it brought you happiness in the past. You hang on despite the payoff being minimal or even negative. But you continue. Why? No good alternatives? Force of habit? Don’t want to offend? And all the time, your inner core continues to melt because you are not being true to yourself and finding new things like you used to.”
Hmm, I thought. Yes, all of those, and possibly more.
One of my favorite films is Brokeback Mountain, a story about two young cowboys — more accurately, sheepherders — who fall passionately in love. From the outset, you have a sense, and even know, that the story will not have a happy ending given it is set in Wyoming in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They tear at each other in frustration, but they can’t seem to end — quit — the relationship. They are full of angst about it, and that is relatable to almost everyone, whether in the context of a one-on-one relationship or a group. Ending a relationship is difficult.
I don’t have a good answer for my friend other than to say we should step back and note the power and attraction of both the groups you would like to separate from and the ones you want to stay in. Then work to sort out why you want to separate from the ones you want to leave instead of focusing on the challenge of detaching. It’s like breaking an addiction. The first step is to recognize the problem. The second step is to note the emotional attachment to it. If it doesn’t feel good, why keep doing it? That is when the power of choice come into play.
Time to move on.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.