Nurturing a Sense of Belonging

One of my beautiful, sweet friends, Julia,  emailed me on Friday and suggested I do a blog on the “sense of belonging.”

I’m wrestling with the idea that maybe I’m not as lonely as I think I am. I just don’t feel like I’ve found the spot I belong in.  So the wrestling is whether this interior angst is about not belonging or being lonely.  Are these the same thing? Maybe. I don’t think so.  But I am having trouble putting my finger on what is different about the two things.  I have always wanted to belong.  But what really does that mean?  That’s kind of where I am with it.  So, I would love to see where that takes you.

I think her confusion would describe exactly my thought process on this. I wondered if it is the same as being lonely. It is…..sort of. They both describe the ache for human connection. I think the need to “belong” is definitely a primal human need. The Indians formed tribes. Early settlers had large families. Jesus formed a Church. Colleges have sororities and fraternities. One of the things that Bill Wilson discovered when he was trying to get sober was that he could only do it if he had another alcoholic to talk to and help. We all need each other. Even though we have this really strong need, it’s not easy for us to connect. That “sense of belonging” is elusive. Even if I am in a room full of people, I can feel like I don’t belong.

Ultimately, to feel like I belong, there has to be someone that can relate to me. If you write a list of groups where you belong, you will have many. I belong to a group called women. I belong to a company called FedEx. I belong to the King family. I belong to a group of pet owners. There are many groups where I belong for many different reasons. But, the sense of belonging that is so deeply important to me is the sense of belonging that I get when I am around others who are real. Being around others who accept me, flaws and all, and who relate to that because of their own flaws is the most comfortable sense of belonging in the world.

Our society has become isolated. So, that real sense of belonging is hard to come by. It takes time to get to know people and figure out if you belong. I can remember living in neighborhoods where I never met even one of my neighbors, or maybe I met them, but I never knew them. Technology connects us but it has also taken the place of face to face interaction. Time pressures have left us with no energy to spend time with loved ones. Families and friends live miles and miles apart so that it is cost and time prohibitive to  nurture connections. I’ve had to make huge, purposeful efforts to build community.

Two winters ago, I was tired of eating by myself. I’d like to cook for someone, and I’d like to have someone eat with me. So, I considered having one night a week where I invited people over. What if they don’t come? What if I put an invite out, and nobody is interested? Well, then I’d feel even more lonely because I was rejected. I finally just told myself to do it. If nothing else, I have to eat anyway. I’ll cook myself a decent meal. I made it easy. Everybody’s busy. So, I sent a note to all my girlfriends and said, “I’m having dinner at my house every Thursday night. You are invited. You can’t stay longer than an hour because we both have things to do. You don’t have to bring anything but your lovely self.” They came. It was a different assortment and number of women every week, but they came. We had a blast. Or, at least I did. They kept coming back, so I guess they did, too. It went on for about 3 months before I let it go. It had served its purpose.

My friend Jessica texted me a photo today of a note scrawled on a coffeehouse wall in Austin. You are what you love, not what loves you. Wow…that’s exactly what I was thinking about having a sense of belonging. Even though we feel good when we “belong”, belonging is accomplished when reaching out to others. It’s about giving and loving just for the pure act of loving and making someone else feel accepted. My friend Cristal, in a totally unrelated conversation, said to me on Sunday, “God made the human heart to be more satisfied with giving than of receiving something that feels good. We want that quick fix, but it doesn’t last. That only feels good for awhile, but then you have to feel it again. ”

At one of the most isolated times in my life, I witnessed an event that I interpreted as a spiritual message to me. I was living in Northwest Indiana in a house with a backyard that backed up to a wetlands habitat. On my birthday in January, I woke up and was having my usual cup of coffee. I heard this loud noise coming from outside, and I saw a herd of deer running around in my backyard. I had never seen deer in our yard before so I ran upstairs to get a better view. There were about 5 doe and 1 large, magnificent buck. Because it was winter, the wetlands area was iced over with patches of solid ice interspersed with frozen mud. The buck had run out onto the ice and was stuck. He kept lifting his hooves one at a time, but with every step, he cracked the ice and would get stuck. The doe stood there and waited for what seemed like an eternity. I felt the message in my soul: You are in trouble. You need to get with your herd. Eventually, the buck was able to dislodge himself, and they all ran off in a cloud of snow. I was quite taken aback, and I never forgot it. Now, when I see a deer in the woods, I feel like it is a reminder to keep connecting with others of like minds and hearts.

My friend emailed me that request with this blog topic, and she was reaching out. She knew I could relate. We belong. My friend Jessica texted me the message that someone wrote on the wall in Austin as a reminder to both of us. She knew I would get it. We belong. I don’t know why that message was written on the wall in Austin, but the act was probably driven by a need of their own to connect…to belong. We all belong to each other. When we reach out, when we write, when we provide support when someone is in trouble, when we love….those are all acts of belonging. The irony is that we are connected already, we just have to reach for the rope to know that it is already there.

9 Comments on “Nurturing a Sense of Belonging

  1. And when you are at the end of your rope, Tie a knot in it and hang on. This too shall pass.

  2. The sense of belonging has always been elusive for me as well. I never feel like I belong in any group. Maybe at times and for a moment but I almost always feel like the outsider. Maybe what I need or expect in order to feel like I belong are too difficult to attain?

    • Thanks for your candidness. I enjoy your blog, and I see that you and I are about the same age. You are also a writer. We belong to a lot of the same clubs. 🙂 I’m in recovery, and people always talk about how they felt like an outsider at an early age. A lot of people think that is a symptom of being an addict. I maintain that it is a symptom of being a human being. I think we all feel that way. If it was easy to connect and belong, we wouldn’t have such a strong drive to build community. So, I think you are right on track with your feelings, and you belong to the group that most of us belong to — the one struggling with a sense of belonging. Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading my blog. Maybe we’ll cross paths at a race somewhere.

  3. I think for me, the hardest thing is feeling like you belong to yourself, which is why that quote spoke so loudly to me. I’m constantly working to find ways to belong to myself, and be ok with just me. Some days are wonderful and other days are a big struggle.
    But I think too, trying to belong just to you, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to isolate yourself. It’s just a way to know that no matter what anyone else says to you to make you feel excluded, you belong to you.

    • It took me almost 50 years to feel like I belonged to myself. Once I got that, then I’ve felt much more like I belonged in other places. It’s sort of like that old saying that you can’t love others until you love yourself. I never really got that, either. I thought I loved myself, but I didn’t…. not really. Loving myself meant accepting myself, weirdness and all, and embracing that even if others didn’t. I still feel uncomfortable with being different at times, but my self-talk now tells me I can be different and still be okay. I never could do that before. My self-talk was all about trying to conform to other’s expectations. You are well on your way, Jessica. If I had been half the woman you are at your age, my life would have been so much easier. And, I’m not just blowing smoke up your running skirt! 🙂

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