“The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.” -John O’Donahue
The experience of belonging, of feeling at home, is at once surprising and yet also so full of ease that it seems like it has always been. It is surprising because feeling deeply a part of the people and the place you find yourself is a rare and unique experience. In part, it is rare because our technology has tricked us into believing that belonging can be a passive experience. All these apps ask you to only click here, deposit photos there, and join group upon group, as if this digital identifying oneself with others could feed the soul of our belonging needs. In fact, belonging is such a basic need to a thriving human existence that babies who are not loved perish, even when all their other needs are met. Like love, belonging is an action verb that requires more than just saying it. But, like love, the actions of belonging are developmental skills that improve with practice. Here is a short list to begin with…
Brene Brown once wrote, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” We have to show up in our glory to really belong- because this is the first real litmus test of whether the group we want to be part of is truly a match. Disguising our real selves to belong is a slow poison that not only makes us untrustworthy in the group, but even more damaging to ourselves. Discerning where we are welcome is a developmental milestone that we hopefully achieve by the end of our teen years, after all the failed social experiments in high school. But if you are still checking to see if your back is covered when you walk away, start listening closer to your heart. Being alone is better than trying to belong where you don’t.
The difference between clicking a button on a social media site and participating with other people is literally worlds apart in our hearts. One of my earliest experiences of belonging happened when I was in France as an exchange student. Everything about this foreign place and the people I met felt familiar and yet I was in every way a foreigner. Day after day, sitting in a café with my French- English dictionary in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I spoke to anyone in the café who would speak to me. Fortunately for me, it was before the days of cell phones, and as my language fluency quickly improved, my participation in our daily conversations evolved into being included in the exotic activities of a small circle of interesting French students. This was true for me much later as a new mom as well. Just hanging out at the park with my toddlers wasn’t enough, I had to help organize and participate in a play group. It is the work we bring to our participation that makes belonging a real thing.
Perhaps, most powerful of all when it comes to belonging is when our words are met with supporting actions. It is easy to say we care about someone or some cause. It only takes opening our mouths. But committing our time and energy to helping accomplish a goal or meeting a personal need changes everything. How many of your digital friends would come help you move a couch? How many organizations that you support online would you hand out flyers for? Helping is the 3D, real-time version of caring that goes into our hearts and makes us feel loved and loving. And unlike the click and go of digital living, it is a resource that is precious if only because there are only 24 hours in a day. We automatically feel part of groups that we help to exist. We get to look into the eyes and smiling faces of people we show up for. It changes us biologically, in a way that our digital friendships will never get near.
Take the leap with me and choose to turn something you believe into a practice that you do every day or at least once a week. Make it something that will put you in close proximity to other people and where you can offer your hands in help. See if this makes belonging a reality and report back.