Growing old together / by Michael Sloyer

The need to belong is one of the most basic human needs. In fact, it is the third (and middle) rung of the triangle that makes up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (with physiological needs and safety as the bottom two, and esteem and self-actualization as the top two). 

The need to belong, when fulfilled, can be the basis for some of the most wonderful moments of our lives. Family life, romantic relationships, friends, sports teams, clubs, religious organizations, community groups, etc. all thrive, at least in part, due to the basic human need to belong. 

But just like there can be no darkness without light and no happiness without sadness, there can be no inclusion without exclusion. And I think it is fairly obvious that it is this truth that has resulted in some of the worst moments of humanity over the years. War, torture, terror, prejudice, repression, and plain old just not being nice are the vicious side effects of the need to belong. I cannot belong to something unless others are excluded. Or can I?

I was having one of those endorphin inspired moments the other day where the world just seems delightful and everything seems to line up. A flow moment if you will. And I began to take a look at the humans living their human lives all around me. And it dawned on me that each of these humans that I saw share something very special with me. They are living right now. They exist on the same planet as me at the same time as me. The statement “we grow old together” is usually reserved for our most intimate and long lasting of relationships. But in the non-metaphorical sense, we (i.e. all humans that exist today) are literally growing old together. And how cool is that.

It is only partially true that I not excluding anyone when I fulfill my need to belong by thinking about all those humans that are sharing the earth with me now. There are 7.2 billion people living right now. There have been an estimated 108 billion humans that have lived since the beginning of time, so in fact, I am excluding 93.3% of all humans that have ever existed. My group has a 6.7% acceptance rate, making it more exclusive than Princeton. And the best thing about it is that no one really gets upset about being excluded. Anyone that has the potential to want to be included is already included and anyone new to the human scene is automatically added. Seems like a pretty war-proof, violence-proof, terror-proof, and prejudice-proof way to form a group and feel like we belong.

Joking aside, getting present to the fact that we really are in this together has huge ramifications. Even the worst of the worst villains of our society want the same thing: to love and be loved and to have the best possible life for themselves and the people they care about. These villains just have a lot of (metaphorical) crap in their way and a pretty screwed up way of going about achieving these goals. So, while I certainly don’t condone their actions, I have started to see more of the basic goodness in people and really understand that deep down, they want the same beautiful things that I do. I have also found this shift in perspective to be incredibly comforting in times of loneliness or hopelessness. I can look around and feel automatically connected to the guy next to me at Starbucks who won’t stop coughing or the young kid crying into his mother’s shoulder on the MTR. Life is not a dress rehearsal as they say. It is the real thing, now, and we only get one chance. There are 101 billion people with whom I will never cross paths, and even though some of these people are my direct ancestors, I can’t say I have a whole lot in common with them. But the old Chinese guy fixing shoes on the cobblestone street, well I know that he and I have at least one pretty important thing in common.