What does it mean to “fit in”? What does it mean to be a part of a community? How can we tell when there’s enough common ground between an individual and the rest of a group for an experience to be a positive one? I explore these questions all the time in the context of our work at TCS. Trying to decide if a new applicant will “fit” with everyone else is tricky business. Trying to figure out whether an existing member of the community is “getting enough” out of the experience is no less tricky. This one doesn’t talk very much and much of the group does. That one is the only one who likes football and nobody else has a clue about sports. This group is mostly male and how will a girl fit in. That group is focused on college and this applicant has no interest to go to college. He’s the only one who has a driver’s license. She’s the only one who has a real job. He’s the only one who plays an instrument. He’s the only one interested in girls. He’s so much older (or younger) than everyone else.
We spend much of our lives creating our identity, making associations with ideas, with groups, with other individuals. It is always difficult to join a new community, to find a new friend, to develop a sense of purpose in an environment where nobody else understands what you like or what you are good at. On the one hand, we want to be with others of like mind. On the other hand, we want new experiences and diverse relationships that stretch us and keep things interesting. How do we find the balance? When do we seek sameness and when do we seek difference?
In this community, the process can be even trickier. We are such a boutique place, a small shop catering to the specialized needs of a select few. We don’t have a mass of 100 individuals to mix and match together, enabling us to create diverse shared interest groups or to separate people who can’t stand each other. The individuals we work with, in most cases, have had many experiences of being rejected from groups, of not fitting in—or even worse, of initially appearing to fit in and then gradually being rejected. In this community, everyone comes to know the behaviors and attitudes of everyone else fairly intimately. Often, with the right kind of scaffolding and support, this is a positive experience, as a group gradually comes to tolerate the quirks or limitations of its members. Sometimes, even with the right kind of support, it is still a negative experience. This is part of our basic drive for protection and survival; we reject things that we don’t understand, that scare us, or that threaten us in some way.
I have seen this dynamic in action every single year of this program, both on the positive and the negative side. I’ve seen it in the school program, in the young adult program, and in the staff. On the positive side, I see unexpected relationships, moments of empathy, tolerance and forgiveness, and sometimes deep friendships. But, human beings are an imperfect lot. Sometimes, given our best intentions, we still irritate and sometimes mistreat each other. I believe that this is inevitable. What is not inevitable, though, is how we respond to these incidents.
One way is to steel ourselves against them, doing everything we can to avoid their occurrence, using rules, limit-setting, punishment and reward systems, and moral condemnation. Even more extremely, we can harbor grudges, seek revenge, and extract payment.
Alternatively, we can take a different path, often less obvious and frequently hard to follow. This is the path of tolerance, acceptance, and endurance, of recognizing that there can almost always be growth and positivity that comes out of difficult situations. We spend a lot of our day working with the students on managing uncomfortable feelings, learning to delay gratification, being able to not get what they want, being able to make mistakes and move on, managing text anxiety, or handling rejection. What we work with the students on is what we also need for ourselves. We need to be able to stay calm, logical, empathic people even in the midst of great discomfort—when we feel wronged, when we feel misunderstood, when we feel mistreated.
I can tell you that I do not do this perfectly, but it is unquestionably an ideal that I strive for.