I’ve been thinking about how divided our country has become thanks to the election.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently lamented today’s “unstoppable process of reciprocally escalating outrage and disgust, justified via social media.” People seem more polarized than ever and are actually unfriending each other on Facebook and beyond over political disagreements. This strikes me as madness and a violation of a basic part of our nature—the need to belong and form meaningful connections with one another, regardless of political persuasion. Though it may be easy to dismiss President Donald Trump as a wall builder, many of us are becoming wall builders ourselves—which is having negative consequences on our lives. I recently wrote a piece about some of these themes for New York Magazine—and here’s an excerpt of it:
We must reject this impulse to build walls when neighborliness and charity are required. If we want to bridge what today seems like an insurmountable chasm, we need to begin by rethinking our concept of belonging.
Belonging is an idea associated with groups and tribes — political parties and sports teams. Many commentators have noted, for example, the sense of belonging supporters of Trump felt at his rallies during the campaign season — and it was the same story with the Women’s March on Washington. But a sense of belonging based on group membership is a false substitute for the real thing. Psychologists say belonging is defined by being in a relationship or part of a community where you are valued for who you are intrinsically. Just like we need food and water to thrive physically, we need to feel valued, needed, and cared for — like we matter to others — to thrive psychologically. Belonging that requires group affiliation is by nature contingent — your value is defined through associating with the group, not through who you are. This is why Trump’s so-called Muslim ban is so hateful. It reduces real individuals, with all their complexities, to nothing more than a group label.
True belonging doesn’t exist in groups. It lives in moments among individuals. And it is a choice — we can choose to invite others to belong or to reject them by unfriending them on Facebook, treating them with contempt, even by putting an armrest down— by building walls that shut them out physically or emotionally. When a border agent turns back a Syrian refugee, that is an act of rejection that communicates something big: that this agent and the country he represents do not value the life of this refugee enough to allow him to belong and find a home here. Research studies have found that when people are rejected and ostracized in these ways, they conclude that their lives lack meaning and worth. Perhaps even more intriguing, the people who do the rejecting also leave such interactions feeling alienated and insignificant. But when we build belonging with one another, we feel that our lives are more meaningful. And it’s not hard to see why: When other people treat us like we matter, we feel like we matter, too.
Ben Franklin understood the importance of community—even a community of two—in a meaningful life. That was part of the reason why, as a young man, Franklin formed his Junto, which met regularly to discuss how each member could improve himself and his society. The intention of his junto and his wisdom about community building have perhaps never been more relevant.
The beautiful thing about the Ben Franklin Circles is that they transcend politics. In their conversations, members come to appreciate that we all share certain values in common, even if we don’t always agree politically. Indeed, there have been successful Circles that have facilitated cross-partisan debate and conversations. A Circle member (Commonwealth Club, San Francisco) recently described one such conversation on the nature of justice as “surprising and wonderful” continuing, “because I have been wondering lately, watching the media coverage of the election, whether such conversations would ever be possible again.”
Though it’s easy to dismiss President Donald Trump as a wall-builder, many of us have become wall-builders ourselves after the recent election. Let’s resist this urge to build walls when belonging is really what we need. Let’s form communities, like Ben Franklin Circles, that help people build bridges to one another instead.
Emily Esfahani Smith, who co-wrote the New York Magazine article, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.