Seeking a Sense of Belonging in a Divisive Era

Photo: Tim Graham/Tim Graham/Getty Images

Whenever my husband and I are on a flight together, we make a joke​ about the poet Robert Frost. “Good fences make good neighbors,” we tease each other, quoting from his poem “Mending Wall.”

The poem, which is about the real and invisible walls we build between ourselves and others, is a rebuke to people inclined to separate themselves with divides of any sort. I’m an immigrant of Iranian descent with Iranian family here and in Iran, and it seems to me that Frost’s poem has never been more relevant — and its message never more urgent — than it is today.

For me and my husband, the “fence” we’re referring to isn’t President Donald Trump’s border wall or immigration ban or anything like that. It’s much more local — the armrest separating our two seats on the plane. It’s usually up when we arrive, but after we settle in, one of us will inevitably pull it down, a signal that it’s time to work, to read — to retreat into our own private worlds. “Good fences make good neighbors,” we joke as we impose this barrier between us — not because we think it’s true, but because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that we sometimes prefer distance and division over connection and belonging. The joke relieves the tension caused by our small act of separation — it softens the blow that we, like Trump, sometimes want to hide behind walls of our own making, thinking they will somehow protect us from threats and even make life better.

Of course, as an airplane-seat strategy, this makes a certain amount of sense. But as a metaphor for life, this way of thinking couldn’t be more wrong.

I write about psychology, the field of study that traces the vagaries of the human condition. Though psychologists, like any group of academics, disagree about a great deal, one of the most indisputable and enduring findings of the last century has been that human beings have a profound need to belong.

That need to belong is what “Mending Wall” is about. The poem follows two New England farmers who are building a wall between their properties. The neighbor, reflexively quoting his father, insists that “Good fences make good neighbors,” while the poem’s narrator is more sensitive to the consequences of such a belief. “Before I built a wall,” the narrator reflects, “I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.” He’s skeptical that they need a wall between their properties — between the two of them — and repeats twice in the poem, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He yearns for connection and belonging while the neighbor insists on separation and division.

Could there be a poem that better captures what’s happening in our country today? President Trump is like the neighbor, a man who unthinkingly builds new walls and fortifies old ones — walls to keep out immigrants and refugees, walls to divide the Establishment from working-class Americans, walls to protect American manufacturers from American trade partners.

But perhaps it’s worth recognizing Trump is not alone. In many ways —ways we may not even realize — we are becoming wall-builders ourselves. Not in the same way as Trump, of course, but his divisiveness has effected a transformation in us, as well. Gallup recently reported that President Obama’s job-approval rating by political party was by far the most polarized in the organization’s history — a 70 percent gap between Republicans and Democrats. And Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist who has chronicled our political and religious divides, recently lamented today’s “unstoppable process of reciprocally escalating outrage and disgust, justified via social media.” Those who support Trump are backwards, hillbilly racists — “deplorables” — while those who oppose him are elitist coastal snobs— “losers.” People are aggressively unfriending each other, both on and off Facebook, over their tribal divisions in the last election.

This is madness. Taking a page from Frost, 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.

Our acts of separation and rejection, small as they may be or big as they may be, are packed with significance. Trump’s election has shown us that. It’s up to us to reject his model of human relationships and belonging — to not allow his way of being to affect our own, as it has — and to reach across the many boundaries that divide us, whether it’s to welcome refugees who are suffering and seeking a better life here or to reconcile with those with whom we disagree politically.

A beautiful illustration of this came a few days after the inauguration, when three white Texans stopped by Busboys and Poets, a Washington, D.C., cafe that draws a progressive crowd. They were Trump supporters in town for the inauguration. Their waitress, Rosalynd Harris, was a young black woman who had attended the Women’s March. Yet, despite their political differences, they shared a series of warm interactions that culminated in one of the Texans, Jason White, leaving Harris a $450 tip. “We may come from different cultures and may disagree on certain issues,” he wrote her in a note accompanying the tip, “ but if everyone would share their smile and kindness like your beautiful smile, our country will come together as one people.”

This anecdote has received some press because of the size of the tip White left. But the money isn’t the real story. The real story is that Harris decided to tear down a wall rather than build one up. Her spirit of generosity made White and his friends feel welcomed in a place that might otherwise be hostile to a group of West Texas Republicans — and that, to quote another Frost poem, “made all the difference.” It’s our duty as citizens to ensure that such a spirit of generosity prevails among our political leaders to make a difference for the refugees and immigrants seeking a safe haven in this country.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). Follow her on Twitter @EmEsfahaniSmith.

Seeking a Sense of Belonging in a Divisive Era