The Power of Belonging

By Jim Tune

When William Broyles was drafted into the United States Marine Corps in 1968, his early career as a journalist was put on hold.

Some know him for his subsequent screenwriting work on the television series China Beach and films such as Apollo 13, Cast Away, Planet of the Apes, and The Polar Express. But today I’m quoting from his book Brothers in Arms documenting his experiences in Vietnam and the impact of that war on himself and his fellow soldiers.

10_Tune_JNBroyles writes: “A part of me loved war . . . the comradeship our platoon experienced in that war provides a moving and enduring memory in me. A comrade in war is someone you can trust with anything because you regularly trust him with your life. In war, individual possessions and advantages count for nothing. The group, the unit, the platoon is everything. A part of me loved war.”

There is power in belonging. Early in the Second World War, William McNeill was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent months in basic training. His base had no weapons with which to train so most of the days were filled with close formation marching drills with a few dozen other men. McNeill viewed the constant marching as a way to pass time. But as his unit began to synchronize, he experienced a powerful emotion that left an impression on him for the rest of his life:

“A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.”

Research has shown that men and women risk their lives in war not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms. “Self” diminishes as “I” becomes “we.” God has hard-wired our bodies and minds to crave and find our deepest satisfaction when we bond with other humans in true community.

Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell have done exhaustive research exploring how religious and nonreligious Americans differ. They conclude that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. In other words, not only were they generous to their own churches or charities, they also gave as much or more than secular people to secular charities such as the American Cancer Society.

Putnam and Campbell state their findings forthrightly: “Religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

Here’s what captured my attention: Putnam and Campbell surveyed people on their religious beliefs and practices and concluded that specific beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. They found the only thing that was consistently and demonstrably associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their fellow believers: “It is religious belonging that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

Beliefs matter. But right beliefs alone may not propel one toward acts of service or sacrifice. We need one another. There is power in belonging.

This post appeared originally October 7, 2015.

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