Last week we referred to Gabor Mate, who says that the need to belong, especially in a child, can, at least for a time, override his or her need for authenticity. Erich Fromm has written similarly that the deepest need of a human being is to overcome separateness, without sacrificing one’s uniqueness.
In an early work, Jean Vanier wrote that it is in having our inner being structured by someone who loves us, that we have a sense of belonging that enables us to discover our own uniqueness. “A person who has never known a close true relationship with another,” he writes, “cannot live in harmony with others, looking peacefully at the universe, loving generosity and an ideal and all that is beautiful. … The core of their being has not been structured by the presence of someone who said, `You are precious to me. You are mysterious to me. I love you.’”
Yet the desire to belong, and to belong as we authentically are, remains. It may assert itself in a vague feeling that something is missing. It may also find a negative expression in an attempt to avoid all hurt, or in an anger that lashes out at a world that we feel has let us down or betrayed us. What is helpful then is to encounter someone who tunes in respectfully who we are beneath all the surface noise. This is one form of listening someone into their own truth.
While never complete, a sense of belonging is really only experienced when we belong in our uniqueness, not merely through conformity to expectations, or in the seemingly acceptable image we project. The positive aspect is reflected in the answer to the child’s question, “Where did I come from?” The most helpful answer is a story, like the cabbage patch tale, in which the child is the main character and welcomed into the family. If true, the child is told that they are valuable and that they belong, and, precisely that they belong in their very uniqueness.
Cellist, Pablo Casals, in his nineties, said that we must teach children not merely a bunch of facts, but the marvel of their existence. In his words, “You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. … And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.”
From a slightly different angle, Thomas Merton points out: “It is at once our loneliness and our dignity to have an incommunicable personality that is ours, ours alone, and no one else’s. … and the more each individual develops and discovers the secret resources of his or her own incommunicable personality, the more they can contribute to the life and weal of the whole. … If I cannot distinguish myself from the mass of other persons, I will never be able to love and respect other persons as I ought. … I will never discover what I have to gi ve them, and never allow them to give me what they ought.”
Merton is suggesting that I need to have a genuine sense of my own uniqueness in order to have a real sense of belonging. He goes further to consider that an essential part of belonging is to give of and from that sacred, unique self, and to allow and invite others to do the same.
It is a very gradual process by which we come to an awareness of our distinct self, only over time and with experience of life, do we come more and more into our own hands. 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 in the characters of the stepmother and the witch, sometimes the emerging of the self happens in a wounding context. It can be one of rejection which can push us to become clinging–to sacrifice our uniqueness in order to belong. Or it can be one of smothering which can push us always to keep our distance, and so never to belong. 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 or are in opposition to them. Hopefully, however, there will be many occasions of connection in mind and heart, 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, and that there is somewhere we can belong and somewhere to give ourselves.. The pain of feeling that we are worthless or of little worth and belong nowhere is terrible. That experience is reflected in the Beatles songs, Nowhere Man and Eleanor Rigby. The image of someone “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door,” is a vivid example of an unsuccessful attempt to find belonging by sacrificing uniqueness, where both are lost. A similar example came from a woman who was exploring the possibility of attending university. She spoke to me after an early class and said with an immense sadness, “I don’t think I belong here.”
All our reflections have been based on the assumption of our sacred worth, and 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 gently or more harshly.
While it is especially through encounter with caring human beings that we may discover that sense of authentic worth and belonging, several authors have pointed out that we may realize something of that sense of belonging from the natural world. By the very fact that we are breathing, we are part of and so belong to the whole ecosystem of our earthly home. Thomas Berry, who has referred to himself as an ecologian–a philospher or theologian of the earth–speaks of the whole universe as a community of beings. Theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, invites us to see our relationship to the earth not in terms of domination from without, but in terms of kinship from within, something of which we are a part, not apart.
The voice of longing and hope always remains, as the Pandora myth suggests, It is a hope that calls from deeply within us and sings out the conviction that our longing for worth and belonging is not in vain It expresses the profound reality of our sacred value, a value shared by all other persons and realities. 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.
Norman King, July 10, 2022