My recent readings on happiness repeatedly emphasize our human need to be part of a social group. We are social animals who need the healthy company of other humans from birth. Babies denied human touch, for instance, develop abnormally, while babies who receive plenty of touch grow more active brains. Much of childhood involves learning how to interact with others: first with our family, then with larger groups like church or school or athletic teams.
The best advice I received when I headed off to college was to join a group. Any group would do; it just had to be a collection of people with a common interest and sense of community within the larger community of the university. My high school class numbered in the seventies; my freshman class at Duke numbered over 1,100. That’s a big change, and finding a group helped me feel a sense of belonging.
My group was Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity founded by an Eagle Scout who felt that once he went to college, opportunities to continue his commitment to service had thinned considerably. The fraternity went co-ed in the 1970s, but all members are called brothers, regardless of gender. Its motto is "Be a Leader. Be a Friend. Be of Service." I pledged first semester freshman year, and it was one of the smartest things I did at Duke.
Pledging APO was radically different from pledging a traditional Greek fraternity or sorority because APO isn’t exclusive. If you do everything required of a pledge, you are in. No one sits in judgment of how well you fit with the group, and you can't be rejected because your nose is too big or your mommy wasn't a sister or you don't drink.
APO’s purpose is to serve the fraternity, university, community, and country with volunteer activities; all willing hands are welcome. Pledges make a paddle and get it signed by the brothers, interview the brothers to learn about them and bond with them, attend meetings, and participate in a certain number of hours of service. That's it.
And yes, while I pledged, I was kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken blindfolded to an undisclosed location. Nothing scary or hurtful or humiliating happened, though. We just laughed a lot and had fun.
In my years as a brother, our chapter only denied one pledge membership…and we encouraged him to re-pledge. For reasons that I don’t recall, he hadn’t attended many meetings, hadn’t interviewed more than a few brothers, and hadn’t met the hours of service required. Most of us didn’t know him at all. It took several hours of debate for us to decide his fate, and most of the brothers felt horrible about the need to deny his membership.
Isn’t that a pretty cool group to be a part of? Even then, I was all about inclusion.
Anyway, I made friends in classes, but my APO brothers were my family-away-from-home, a great comfort and support and encouragement for me through a rough time in my life. Together, we helped Girl Scouts sell cookies, threw parties for underprivileged children in the Durham community, winterized battered women’s shelters, painted public housing, tutored in the Durham city schools, and raised money for important causes.
We also laughed—a lot. One day, a brother named Wilder and I went through boxes in the APO office and found an old award plaque for, of all things, potato chip sales. We decided to award the extremely pointless plaque to a random brother for a random reason each meeting. Whoever received it one week would then make up a reason to present it to someone else the next.
Wilder, a fellow English major, presented me with the plaque after giving a gripping analysis of its phallic imagery. He noted that since I was married and thus the only APO brother who could legally have sex in the state of North Carolina, I deserved such a richly symbolic plaque.
The following week, I cleverly analyzed the plaque for Christ symbols and awarded it to our resident Christ-figure: the only brother with a beard.
These are the sorts of trivial, stupid activities that encourage esprit de corps. We need silliness and fun in our social lives, don’t we?
I wrote here that we get what we give in life, and that is certainly true of our membership in groups. I gave APO a lot and got more in return. Just having the pin didn’t mean anything; what mattered was day-to-day participation. I encouraged my fellow brothers, and they encouraged me.
Ever since my time in APO, I’ve recognized my need to be part of a group, part of something bigger and better than myself, one person among many with a common purpose. Over the next few weeks, I will ruminate about groups and belonging, as well as what it feels like to be excluded and marginalized. This week, however, I’d appreciate your sharing which groups—other than family—have contributed to your happiness. Did your group have any silly ritual or inside joke that helped to bond them?
For me, right now, church provides the best social groups, especially in a long-term Bible study and Stephen Ministry. Our Bible study has a running joke about how we never finish all the topics for discussion each week. For Stephen Ministry, the jokes are often about boxes of tissues and how much we need them each week; we're a bunch of sappy weepers.
Now it’s your turn! Please do share!