Belonging to a community is based on acceptance, inclusion, cooperation, and on the premise that we are all part of the natural world, living together on planet earth. Community was critical in hunter/gatherer societies, obviously for the hunting and gathering part, but also for the sense of belonging and fulfillment of emotional needs, as a place to bring and deal with life's changes, passages, sorrows and celebrations.
Children - and adults - want and need to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. The time we live in presents fewer opportunities than ever before for this to happen. While we can connect to friends across the world through our cell phones and social media, and we can remain in more frequent contact with loved ones through text or tweet or email, the connection and contact often remains hollow, not quite filling our hunger for real, human, face-to-face connection. Have you ever gone on Facebook, hoping to see what's happening in your 'world', and then left feeling just as unconnected as before you logged on? Maybe you then check in to see what's happening on your news feed again, just five minutes after you last looked, and so continues an often unconscious cycle of searching for connection, obtaining a ghost-like version of it that leaves you still 'hungry', and then going back for more. I find that this yearning for connection is truly met and satisfied while in the physical presence of others. Having someone like your funny post or comment on your beautiful picture feels good, but it feels good like drinking a cold can of Coke feels good, momentarily refreshing and thirst-quenching, until your body responds to the sugar and caffeine by becoming even more dehydrated, after which you drink another Coca-Cola. Interacting in the physical world is often more challenging, more complicated, more messy than communicating digitally, but it is also more profound. A friend laughing at your joke - you actually witnessing their eyes crinkle up, their mouth open, and then hearing the chuckling sounds that come out - does something rewarding that no post like has ever done for me. So too does someone telling me (in person) that I look nice. I might even blush or laugh a little in embarrassment, I'm effected physically in a way that digital interaction simulates, but cannot replace.
In this country we are often brought up with the American ideal that to grow up is to become independent and self-actualized. We grow up to become individuals so that we can 'do it ourselves', and there's certainly something important about growing into a unique, separate person. Through the process of growing into adulthood, in a search for 'where do I belong', we could also be taught, intentionally, how to foster connection with others, how to build community, and how to become a part of something bigger than ourselves. Maybe there's a correlation between our lack of connection with nature and our lack of connection with others. When we 'work' on one, it also helps or works with the other.
There is one community that everyone is a part of (whether they acknowledge it or not), and that is the community of earth. This community will be celebrated soon - on April 22nd, Earth Day, as it has been every year since 1970. If you're not doing anything special to mark this day, don't worry. Maybe just take a minute or two and connect, in person, to another human being.
Ed Bieber is the Owner/Director of The Nature Place Day Camp. He has a B.A. degree from Rutgers University in Botany, M.S. from Michigan State University in Outdoor Education and New York State Permanent Teaching Certification, N-6. Ed has worked professionally, since 1970, with over 250,000 children (and still counting!), adults and families in the outdoors.