A Sense of Worth and Belonging

We have spoken often of our unique identity and of the sacred worth of each person and all that is. Yet at the same time it is good to realize the relational character, the connectedness of everything. This reality is deeply experienced when its apparent absence is felt in times of acute and painful loneliness.. Then there is is a sense of disconnection, of not belonging, the feeling that nobody knows or cares about us.

This reality of connectedness is certainly true on the scale of the universe. As Brian Swimme puts it in the film, The Journey of the Universe: “The stars are our ancestors.” Every element in our bodies and that of all nature comes from those in the stars. We also speak of mother earth, of earth as the origin of ourselves and as our home. We have also noted that breathing, drinking, and eating are not just private activities, but are essentially relational, expressive of our relationship to and dependence upon the earth. The whole issue of climate change is a vivid reminder of our dependency on the earth and the consequences of disrupting that relationship. Author Wayne Muller has commented that by the very fact that we are breathing, we belong, we are part of the while ecosystem. It has also been brought out that we are breathing the same air as other humans and animals have breathed for thousands upon thousands of years.

Yet so many fail to feel this belonging, and instead feel isolated, alone, and alienated, that is, feeling other than and estranged from the people and world around them, even those to whom they are supposed to feel close.

I have had occasion to explore these questions in different courses. An obvious example has been dealing with the themes of loneliness, solitude, and friendship, isolation and belonging, estrangement and community. Another inquiry concerns the topics of knowledge and freedom, which can be viewed respectively as the gathering and gift of self. As we gradually become aware of ourselves in our distinctness (knowledge), there follows a longing to give ourselves to another or others or to something which provides a feeling of belonging and purpose (freedom). Basic questions that arise out of our emerging into awareness are: who am I? where do I belong? and what am if for?

Many years ago, I also had occasion to offer a course on this process of separation and unification, that the ancient Greeks called the problem of the one and the many. The division of a single cell is followed by reintegration into a new unity. I have watched kittens being born and, as soon as they emerged, they sought their food source in their mother. On watching this birth process, my then 6 year old daughter’s comments were: “Ooh its messy,”. To which I replied: “Life is messy, my dear.” She then added on how cute the baby kittens were. Each day as they grew visibly, they would wander further away from the mother cat, only to return, until much later they went our on their own to give birth to the next generation of cats.

In a somewhat similar way, a woman gives birth to a child who is then placed in his or her mother’s arms. The small child, in playing peekaboo, is apparently dealing in a humourous way with the fear of separation. Implied here is a growing awareness of oneself as a separate being and therefore able to be separated from another, yet profoundly needing them. Later the child runs out to play and runs back home periodically to reassure their belonging. Stories like Hansel and Gretel reveal how sometimes children are not simply allowed and encouraged both to venture forth and to return. Instead they may be cast out or imprisoned, victims of rejection or possessiveness. This is the experience of all too many children. The story reaffirms, nonetheless, that despite this wilderness experience, they may still find a home within themselves and in caring others.

Philosopher John Smith gives a striking account of experience. He says that we don’t start out with an awareness of ourselves as a distinct individual and then try to relate to other distinct individuals. Rather it is the opposite that happens. Initially there is no sense of a distinct self. Then as we interact with others and the world around us, in ways that may be both enjoyable and hurtful, we gradually become aware of ourselves as distinct from the persons and things of the world around us. I like to express this experience by saying that gradually we come more and more into our own hands. We do so as distinct from and over against the persons and conditions around us. As we do, we feel more and more the longing to place ourselves somewhere where we feel we belong and where we can be and do something worthwhile. This is the process of the gathering and gift of self.

Yet, as the Hansel and Gretel story expresses, sometimes the emerging of the self happens in a wounding context. It can be one of rejection which can push us to become clinging, or one of smothering which can push us always to keep our distance. In either case, it can be hurtful in a way that can make us wonder about our own worth, as well as our ability to relate creatively to others and the world around us. In its most negative expression, it can lead us to withdraw in a crippling fear or to lash out in a destructive anger. Ideally, with the help of one another, we can live and respond out of a sense of our own worth and that of those we encounter, even when differ from them or are even in opposition. Hopefully, however, there will be many occasions of connection in mind and heart, in creativity and in friendship.

It does seem the there is in us a deep longing that the self that comes into our hands is a valuable self. The pain of feeling that we are worthless or of little worth is terrible. All these reflections over the weeks have been based on the assumption of our sacred worth, and have focused on ways we may come to experience that worth in ourselves and others. A key element in the recognition of that sacred worth is the realization that it is not taken away by the limitations and wounds that are part of every human life, whether these occur more gently or more harshly.

The voice of hope that calls from deeply within us sings out the conviction that our longing for worth is not in vain but expresses the profound reality of our sacred value. It invites us to realize that we have something to give flowing from who we are. It is our presence and our gifts as they find themselves in our present life-situation. And it blends with the recognition that the world of persons and things around us, though wounded as well, is worthy of the gift of who we are and its many dimensions.

May your discover more and more the gift that you are and the gifts that you have, and increasing feel, with each new breath, a sense of belonging and also a sense of enduring purpose in your life.

Norman King, December 19, 2021