The Life and Death Struggle to Belong

“I don’t feel like I belong.”

It has taken me a long time to appreciate the power of that statement of Caleb’s.

For many years, I downplayed the volcanic power of this cry because I confused loving with belonging.

On one level, yes, Caleb was different. Physically he looked different with those high cheekbones and classic Cree profile. And it was clear that his innate clock differed from the school year. In the spring, his entire inner being screamed that he should be doing something else. And summer - another season that called to him in ways I could not identify. Plus, other than myself, he was the only male child among four differently talented white sisters.

But, at a deeper level, I did not give the belonging issue sufficient credence because we loved him. If we loved him so deeply, how could he feel he did not belong? Everything we did for the girls we did for him, indeed more.

The other factor that made me turn from a full appreciation of his implicit cry about belonging was more personal. If I stood in the pain of his not belonging perhaps I would have to acknowledge and feel my ache, my own questions of where I felt I truly belong.

Brene Brown, writing in her narrative style, names the profound impact of the sense of not belonging.

(T)he ache of not belonging was one of the most painful threads in my own life. …Feeling like I never truly belonged anywhere was my greatest pain, a personal suffering that threaded through most of my pre-adult life. …Experiences of not belonging are the time markers of my life ….
Even in the context of suffering—poverty, violence, human rights violations—not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. …That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth.

Brown talks of how dangerous those feelings can be.

when we’re hurting and when love and belonging are hanging in the balance, we reach for what we think will offer us the most protection
How are our struggles and behaviors related to protecting ourselves? How are our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions related to vulnerability and the need for a strong sense of worthiness?

We can quickly generate a list of things available to dull the ache if not offer full protection from the feelings of not fitting - drugs, alcohol, television, shopping, ceaseless activity generated by working on that list of things we “should” be and do to be acceptable.

In the church, we have been aware for at least a decade of the generational shift in priorities. GenXers and subsequent generations, especially Millennials, reverse the traditional order of believe, behave and belong. You have to believe certain things before you know how to behave; and once you know what to believe and how to behave then you are fit to belong. Now, belonging has become Job 1.

 Diana Butler Bass has a helpful reframing of this shift.

the question about belonging is no longer about joining an organization, but it's about relationship. What do I want to live my life next to? What community will help me form who I am? 

Belonging - not just a matter of familiar soundtracks, common hair and clothing styles, but of who “do I want to live my life next to?”

And how do we find that out?

We look for people exhibiting the characteristics of honesty, integrity, authenticity and transparency. Little wonder that in this age of loneliness these character attributes are named as even more valuable.

Caleb names the Cree/Sioux and, in particular, those in the Native American Church as those with whom he feels an innate sense of belonging. He talks of the open hearts of those gathered around the campfire during ceremonies, their struggles apparent, the laughter co-existing with tears. And when the flap of the teepee opens, they do their best to walk the talk. When Caleb describes some of the elders as really “old school” I smile because the image surfaces of Yoda in the swamp with the young Skywalker. “There is no try; there is only do.”

I am now retired and so released from any professional obligation to be nice to people, so I am trying to be more honest about where I fit.

I value the conversations with Caleb for many reasons. One is that many of the questions with which he struggles focus my wondering. “Who do I want to live my life next to?”

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