Fiction Poetry Life
To feel like we belong is one of the most basic human needs. It motivates our behavior, and, when satisfied, gives life meaning. Studies show that those who don’t have a sense of belonging are more likely to be depressed, even suicidal. Akin to this need to belong is the need to fit in…somewhere.
My First Goose is Isaac Babel’s tale of an educated Jewish man who is assigned to a Cossack army camp during last century’s Russian civil war. In contrast to the narrator, who is small, wears glasses and is an intellectual, the Cossacks are large, rough men. Babel depicts them as mostly uneducated. The Cossacks think the narrator, whose job it is to educate them on Leninist thought, is a wimp and make fun of him. In a nutshell, he’s an outsider. Like all of us at some point in our lives, the narrator wants to fit in. Nearby is an old woman, on whose property they are camped out.
Trying to Fit In
This story reminds me of when I was in the sixth grade. I had a friend whose initials were CC. CC and I got along great. We shared that easy way of being together that’s common in real friendship. But there was another girl, FW, whose friendship everyone coveted, me included. FW was funny, confident, lively and liked by most.
Inexplicably, at some point during that school year, FW befriended me. I had no idea why. Being quiet and shy, I hardly hit anyone’s radar. Hanging out with FW made me feel I was cool by association, like maybe I could be popular and well-liked too and be part of the “in crowd.”
One reason FW was so popular was she made people laugh — usually by making fun of some other kid. One of FW’s targets was CC. So, to be liked even more by FW, I started to make fun of CC too, the girl who’d been nothing but nice to me and who had done precisely nothing to deserve such abuse.
Initially, I felt good about this newfound friendship with FW. But that soon gave way to feelings of guilt and shame. What a clueless, insecure kid I must have been. Today, I regret that time, knowing I can do nothing to go back and change that brief period of my and CC’s personal history.
The question is, How can one enjoy any sense of belonging that is gained through such questionable means?
What the Outsider Did
At one point in My First Goose, a young Cossack throws the narrator’s trunk into the road. In spite of this, or probably because of it, the narrator wants to belong to this group of rough men even more. He takes the old woman’s goose, steps on its head, cracking it, then hands it to the old woman and forces her to cook it.
The Cossacks respond. The most senior one invites the narrator to share their meal until his goose is ready. The young Cossack who’d thrown out the trunk amiably asks him what the newspapers have to say. That night, the Cossacks and the narrator all sleep in the hayloft, keeping one another warm. The narrator has been accepted into the group. For the moment, at least, he belongs. He dreams of women, but, he says, “only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed.”
What price did the narrator pay for becoming a part of that group of coarse and callous men? And how long would he feel he belonged?
Joining up with just any group that will have us is not enough to satiate our need to belong and can be damaging in the long run. Because along with the need to belong and feel accepted, we also have a serious need to feel loved and to form long-lasting, deep bonds. The nature of the groups we choose to attach ourselves to is as significant as taking the necessary steps to fit in somewhere. Being part of a group that promotes positivity and goodwill is far more beneficial to our well-being than being part of a group that is clearly at odds with our own sense of right and wrong.
I‘d love to hear what you think. Is the desire to belong a need or merely a want? In his effort to fit in, did the narrator of My First Goose go too far in killing the old woman’s goose or was it a reasonable act? Have you ever compromised your own sense of right and wrong just to fit in?
Literature Cited: My First Goose
Author: Isaac Babel
Year Published: 1926 (as part of the Red Calvary stories)
Quotation is taken from David McDuff’s translation of the stories.