Belonging and alienation

A friend was once discussing her feelings about the community in which she lives. She said that she doesn’t feel so much like she fits in, but she relates to our small group of women that meets once a week to discuss Jewish texts and talk about what’s going on in our lives as her “community.”

What makes us feel alienated and what gives us a sense of belonging? Does logotherapy, with its focus on unique meanings have anything of value to say about community and our place in it or does it only address the individual?

Frankl says about uniqueness that “to be” is “to be different.” We each have a singular unique destiny and unique tasks waiting for us, something no one else can do. To be human is to be conscious and to be responsible, actually to be conscious of our responsibility.

In his book The Doctor and the Soul Frankl writes that we can picture the relationship between the individual and the community as a mosaic. If all the pieces were perfect and identical each piece could be easily replaced by any other piece. But it’s not that way. Each individual piece of stone is incomplete; its unique meaning and value is in relation to the whole mosaic.

Similarly the uniqueness of the human personality finds its meaning in its role within an integral whole. Meaning always points beyond our limited scope as individuals. In being directed toward community the meaning of the individual transcends itself.

Thus, what defines your uniqueness is your unique position in the group and what defines your task is your unique contribution to the group. Your place and your contribution in the group means knowing that your “difference” makes a difference! You have something significant to contribute, in a way that you could not possibly contribute if you were the same as everyone else. You belong there as a significant part of the whole; therefore you are significant.

Community has its perspective as well, and here Frankl draws a sharp distinction between community and the mass. The mass does not tolerate individuality. The meaning of individual uniqueness is submerged in the mass, while in community it emerges. So in order for the individual to feel a sense of belonging he or she has to have something to contribute to the community and the community also has to welcome and appreciate the individual’s contribution. It has to be a place wherein the individual has a unique significant value.

If I am different and I have a singular task to do, then I will feel fulfilled by performing my unique task, and community is the context for doing my singular task.

What happens when an individual, especially an adolescent feels alienated? All of the above! He feels different from the others. The community doesn’t value his unique contribution. He then substitutes a different community where he is not different and can escape into the mass. Frankl writes: “By escape into the mass, man loses his most intrinsic quality: responsibility…True community is in essence the community of responsible persons; mere mass is the sum of depersonalized entities.” (The Doctor and the Soul, Frankl, p. 73)

Thus the problem of alienation lies not in individual difference but in the orientation. The more needy you feel the more you’ll try to find a group that can fill your needs. The more healthy you are the more you’ll ask what it is that you can contribute.

What’s left as an open question is: Can you identify a common goal? – Because without that, you won’t be interested in contributing to the group.

Batya Yaniger

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2 Responses to Belonging and alienation

  1. אסתר מלכה says:

    I’ve spent a long time thinking about the role of the community and the individual, both alone and in discussions with friends. I think that in order to have a community the group has to allow for each member to contribute. When the unique ability of the individual is not allowed expression, for any number of reasons, he will not feel part of the community. Likewise, there can be no community if it is not made up of contributing individuals. Unlike the common assumption that people want to “get” something from their community, I think most people want to be given the “space” to contribute, and to see that their contribution is valued.

  2. logogroup says:

    What you’re saying is a natural extension extension of the sentence “The community doesn’t value his unique contribution.” And it’s so true. I’ve experienced it myself. When I teach or write about this I’m going to incorporate your point into it. Thank you!

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