make the people around you feel necessary

From Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

"Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary."

"Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits. [...] Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long."
(If you've talked to me at any point over the past two weeks, you're probably sick of how often I bring up this book. Read it. It is wonderful.)

Pakistani Pundits and Socialites

There's an 18-inch TV perched in the kitchen where I dutifully ate my morning Cocoa Puffs as a child. On any given weeknight, this TV featured a gaggle of Pakistani pundits "debating" about the state of the country. To an outsider, it probably sounded like a bunch of hotheaded teens yelling over each other. To an insider ... well, it also sounded like a bunch of hotheaded teens yelling over each other.

So I learned that Pakistanis can be quite cruel and contemptuous towards those who don't think like them.

Some of the other programs that played on GeoTV (Pakistan's flagship station) featured much gentler and more respectful commentary. Of course, the guests on these shows tended to agree with each other.

So I learned that Pakistanis are quite kind and hospitable to those who think like them. 

After a brief foray into the world of DC-area Pakistani socialites, I made my quiet exit after repeatedly feeling like I didn't belong. I didn't feel necessary or particularly valued in that environment. So my image of "those people" came from a place of insecurity masked behind moral superiority. "Those people" and their glitzy, glamorous, superficial, horrible ways.

Years later, I realized that I wasn't a victim here. I was an aggressor. Those who held perspectives or preferred lifestyles that clashed with my own would then become the objects of my contempt. As they sensed that I cast them away in my mind, I became the object of their contempt. Each party defensively dismissed the worthiness of the other.

The Formation of Echo Chambers

It dawned on me that this strange quality of "contempt for those who don't openly accept you" extends everywhere there is an ego that cares a lot about its own success.

This is all something I've noticed only very recently (probably as my ego has chilled out enough to let me see more clearly). In my personal life, it took the form of clashes with friends, significant others, parents, siblings, acquaintances. Elsewhere, it looked like Fox News v. CNN showdowns of increasingly higher stakes. Overall, it looks like people talking over each other and not with each other.

As of late, I've been following ultra-right and ultra-left commentators on Twitter, and now my feed resembles a schizophrenic conspiracy theory that can't decide on who the villain is, but that there is a villain somewhere in the mix.

"Those people" voted for a tyrant. But "those other people" have always wanted to paint him as a tyrant. Both sides scream their own views ad infinitum into the depths of their respective echo chambers.

This "echo chamber" business doesn't appear to be an issue of politics. It is and has always been a problem of basic human decency. Those we don't agree with, we cast away with frustrating jargon. Those who cast us away with frustrating language, we view contemptuously. When we don't feel valued or necessary in a particular context, we demonize that context and avoid engaging with it.

Notes from the Classroom

Early on during my short stint as a teacher, I was having a difficult time with one of my students. My mentor swung by my classroom one morning as I was prepping for the day.

"Mr. Mian, you still having trouble with that boy T in your afternoon class?"
"If by trouble you mean I can't sleep well because of him, then yes."
"I've got an idea for you. Put him in charge of passing back homework."
"I don't know, Ms. G. That's dicey."

After a few more days of struggle with T, I gave in and tried my mentor's suggestion.

"T, I'm giving you a job that will help me teach you guys better. Think you can handle it?"
"Why can't you get F to do it? She always trying to help out anyways."
"Are you telling me you can't handle it?"

I'm not sure whether it was because of the challenge or because of the job, but T gradually stopped (most of) his disruptions. His grades steadily climbed up. And he found a way to inject his own personality into the gig. It became fun.

I suspect that as soon as T realized he was a necessary component of the classroom, he stepped up. His contempt for me and for math class subsided when he became a valued, integral member of what we were trying to accomplish. Strangely, as I saw him become a valued member, my own contempt for him also disappeared.

Feeling Necessary & Making Others Feel Necessary

In Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes about this notion of "feeling necessary" when he discusses his work with soldiers coming back from combat. In many tribal, communitarian societies, warriors returning from the front are seamlessly reintegrated into the fabric of daily life. However, in the US, many veterans suffering from PTSD get tossed a monthly disability check and regular appointments with a doctor. Until recently, there had been minimal resources directed towards helping them reintegrate and feel valued for more than just being Army grunts that we "thank for their service."

If the shape of society is the complex interactions occurring across a set of individuals, then the way we make each other feel necessary could be the lynchpin for a healthier society. Because when people don't feel heard or valued, they will seek out tribes that do value them. Then things begin to fracture. Then things fall apart.