The Path to Belonging

I recently heard an interesting interview, on the CBC Ideas podcast, with.George Monbio, a writer for The Guardian newspaper, who has published a book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.

“Here are some of the things I try to fight: environmental destruction, undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency,”

To move in a more equitable direction, he says, we need a new story. I would add that we need a new script at the back of our minds, new eyes through which we look at life. He speaks of going beyond a “toxic individualism” to a story based on the idea of community, an awareness that at a deeper level, we are a social, cooperative, and empathic species. What is crucial is to create communities of belonging, where people feel listened to and that their voice counts.

From a different angle, I also heard an interview with a socially active nun, Simone Campbell, who was centrally involved in the “Nuns on the Bus” social justice project. She has written a book called Hunger for Hope. She insists that in order to see clearly and to struggle beyond the blindness or lack of vision caused by prejudices and fears, we need a contemplative dimension to our lives.

This approach reminds me of the poet, Rilke, who challenges us to seek the depths of things and to go into ourselves and explore the depths from which our life flows. Any answers, he insists can only be uncovered by our inner most feelings and our most private hours. If we do so, we will gradually deepen our understanding of life.

At the same time, Simone Campbell insists that it is essential to be grounded in community, one that at once sustains us and which has enough imagination to help us see the way forward. Like Monbiot, she also considers, in a slightly different way, that change comes through storytelling, especially the stories of suffering of ordinary people. Listening deeply to the stories of people leads to a sense of empathy and connection, and suggests a way forward. Henri Nouwen has also written that being vulnerable to another, where possible, lead to friendship and community, and that, out of this very presence, directions to follow and steps to take become clearer.

Out of all of this I would add that a sense of community, an experience of community, is perhaps one of the most difficult things to find today. Here a few thoughts come to mind. Perhaps solitude and friendship are the first routes to follow. There are many forms of and pathways to solitude. One is the practice of meditation, which itself can take many forms depending upon what is the best fit for ourselves. It can be the simple repetition of a word or phrase that helps slowly to clear our mind of its incessant clutter, or a brief expression that sums up something of who we are or of our deepest and most authentic longing. Another, that I particularly appreciate, is to read something, perhaps from Rilke or Rumi, or any number of sources that speak to the heart. Listening to beautiful music, going for a walk in a natural setting, sitting before a flickering candle or even a tank of swimming fish, are a few of the many possibilities.

Solitude differs from loneliness. Solitude is a quiet inner opening up, exploration, and awareness of the inner world. Loneliness is a feeling of isolation, of not belonging. As one student expressed it so well years ago, loneliness is the feeling that there is no one with whom you can be yourself without defence or pretence.

Friendship does not take away the loneliness that is part of the human condition, but it shares that loneliness, and to feel more comfortable with it. William Sadler wrote an article many years ago in which he speaks of friendship as the mutually enriching sharing of experiences, most profoundly through open conversation. In such conversation, we feel free to express ourselves with openness and vulnerability, without fear of rejection. My favourite description is that of Henri Nouwen who says that the real friend is not the person with the answers but the one who sticks it out with you when there are no answers

Perhaps friendship may be considered the bridge to community; from thinking in terms of “I” to thinking in terms of “we.” It involves an enhanced recognition of personhood as including myself and extending beyond myself to a friend and eventually to all individuals. From all I have read, there are two essential ingredients of community: the first is a place of belonging to and the second is a place of outreach from. Monbiot speaks of grassroots community, a place where one’s voice is heard and where it counts. And where then people decide collectively what is best for all. Simone Campbell speaks of her community of nuns as providing both home and challenge. Henri Nouwen writes of finding a true home, not in academic circles, but in a community of intellectually challenged people.
The base communities that evolved in Latin America and South Africa are further examples.

An interview a few years ago spoke of finding community through contact with people of like mind and heart, who share something of one’s vision and values. This contact may be through Zoom these days, or by email or telephone, as well as through some form of personal contact and gathering. There may also be circles if friends or a number of contacts relating to various dimension of our lives. The key element is to find a home, a place where we do have a sense that we do belong, a sense that not just what we say or do, but who we are, is valued and heard, and that we have something to offer.

In a wider context, scientist Brian Swimme says that the stars are our ancestors, that all the elements that are in our makeup come from the stars, that billions of years of an unfolding universe have resulted in us. One friend found a more immediate sense of belonging, less in her family than in the animals that surrounded her. The French Poet, Baudelaire, has said that all through life we walk through forests of living things that shower wisdom and compassion upon us. Writer Wayne Muller has stressed that, by the very fact that we are breathing, we are part of a whole ecosystem, and so we do belong. We do not have to prove it, only somehow experience it.

All in all, a basic need is to find a place of belonging, a place of home. It can be in our own heart, in the heart of another in friendship, in some kind of community, in story, music., and other arts, in an identity as earthlings, as part of a vast cosmos. And from that home, we are drawn to set out in openness, in compassion, in justice.

In this spiralling journey from and to home, what seems essential is a sense of our own worth, as a precious and sacred gift, given into our own hands. Yet it is a gift not just to ourselves, but also to others. The challenge may be to gradually discover or uncover who we are, what are our gifts, what we have to offer, and how we may come to live our that sacredness for ourselves and others in this present time and place.

May your own life journey be rewarding and fulfilling for yourselves and for all who come within the circle of your light.

Norman King. July 19, 2021