06/21/2011 02:53 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2011

The Pleasures of Hidden Membership

Americans have prided themselves on producing the most mobile society on record. Actually the pride is partly misplaced, for once our ancestors left for a land unbound by tradition, there was nowhere to call home regardless of the pull to settle down.

So, what do you do when you get to this new place, this vast open space that is not home? You move around, for no single locale has all the things you are looking for. Even worse, all the other places tout the benefits you seem to be missing, while the advantages where you are by now seem commonplace, easily transportable or replicated.

You also talk and fret a lot about pretty insignificant things, like weather or taxes or access to rafting and biking, because anything else would sound like the desire for a home, which we agreed we no longer need. And even if you don't move too often, everyone around you -- who you won't really get a chance to know -- does, so the feeling of transience is the same.

Add to this a people who are incessantly reminded that their social mobility is the envy of the world. While this is no longer close to true, the U.S. being one of the most rigidly stratified societies in the developed world, Americans are encouraged to recall that once it was, and further encouraged to believe that if it is not true now it is their fault -- so get on it. No one mentions that social mobility was available in the past because there was not yet a society and someone had to make it to the top.

So, if this town and this state have no claims on me, this starter house and launching pad neighborhood are also there only to fuel my ambition for what's next. Surely the new place will not be similarly inundated by those moving too slow -- or too fast -- for my comfort.

What happens when this logic crumbles? You can no longer vault up the social ladder -- the rungs are growing ever farther apart -- and it costs a lot to migrate to the Sunbelt, where they are not looking for new concept stores or business ideas anyway. You can't get over the idea that freedom is the ability to leave, to start over, to reinvent, that home is where they tell you what you can't do and the choices have all been made, where you have become predictable and your dreams turned sour.

What you can do is either settle back into the old ways, if as in the South or immigrant communities someone still remembers what these are, or you can keep your distance, hounded by this horrible empty feeling which is the hunger -- unarticulated and unrecognized -- to belong. In a culture such as ours, "stupefyingly without support" for the individual as one observer put it, it is "remarkable the degree of loneliness in which the individual can find himself."

The result is a popular mindset where the need to belong dominates every waking moment: what I must buy, how I will wear or display it, what the media and ads and blogs call the new "hot," who's "cool" and what's "in," then what to drive and where to live and who to know and programs to watch and books to read and team to cheer and schools for the kids and the party to vote for and... it is exhausting and ever-pressing, as full time jobs can be.

Never -- never -- is it OK to talk about belonging. Let's talk about choice, opportunities, self-expression, being ahead of the curve... freedom in the freest land. But really it is about a wish to belong that never gets addressed, never gets satisfied -- and leaves us easy pickings for every fad, ad, hype, group prejudice, and foolish political idea that offers the pleasures of hidden membership.

It is finally about chickens that have come home to roost -- to find there is no home. We are strangers, to others and to ourselves, looking for someone to recognize us, even if by label or zip code. It is about a way of thinking so flawed that even though the outcome is a trap, perhaps a lifelong trap, it is easier to keep on than to ask what's wrong.

How could a people sold on the virtue and courage of rootlessness -- call it freedom if you insist -- even begin to consider why home is necessary? What would have to change before they could reimagine home and community as a nurturing place for individuals and their dreams?

Better to belong to Abercrombie or Lexus, to push our kids to be in and join up while pretending this is our (and their) idea all along. That way I can leave, bow out, shut the door behind me on a moment's notice. To go where? Hopefully to a place where no one will point out what I am doing.