Our Need to Belong
If I had to name my deepest wound, the hurt that catches me again and again, and always by surprise, it’s this: I don't belong. I attend a course and, sitting in a classroom of strangers, feel that I am a poser, the one who doesn’t fit, the one least equipped for whatever learning is supposed to happen. I go to a party where everyone is already engaged in conversation and I want to melt into the floor or slip behind the curtains, anything but stand in the middle of the room, alone.
But I know I’m not alone. Many of us feel this way. All of us, perhaps, at least some of the time. And we have each developed our own coping mechanisms. I became the class clown. Having moved across the country every few years while growing up, always the new kid, I quickly realized that no one was going to give me the stage if I didn’t take it myself. So, I’d say and do outrageous things and win for myself the attention the class may, or may not, have given me otherwise. It worked, more or less, and set me up for my life's gig ... as a preacher.
Who knows where these things come from! Is it history, in my case, all those moves? Is it family, for me, being the middle child? I'm not sure that knowing would help, especially if knowing would lead to blaming and blaming to an even greater sense of hurt and alienation. It may be enough to recognize the pattern, that some of us spend a lifetime seeking a community where we will be accepted and where we can belong ... for good.
This search led me in my formative years to the church, when I was a teen and then a young adult. I grew up in the church world and I knew it well. When it opened its arms to me, to provide me with a job and a role where I would feel useful and appreciated, it was like being welcomed home. Good thing I happened to like the work, and for forty years I thrived doing it.
But that attachment also kept me in the church longer than my judgment should have allowed, when the church no longer cared for the people I cared for, stood for the things I stood for, or preached a gospel my soul could endorse. That turning of the tide created a rift between me and my community and denied me the satisfaction of feeling appreciated for my work. My increasing disaffection with the church made me an outcast, even as I clung to my role and sought ways to persevere in my ministry. This is the problem with our need to belong, and why cults are so dangerous. It makes it hard to leave.
But leaving, I learned a great deal about belonging. Communities are not forever. And new ones form when old ones no longer hold. Suddenly, cut adrift from my church community, I found myself making new friends among my podcasting colleagues, with my writing partners, amidst the spiritual seekers I met along the way, and even in the rekindling of old friendships that could flourish now that I was free again.
One such friendship was with Jan Handy. We'd been classmates at Trinity College, U of T, where we studied for our Master of Divinity degrees and prepared for ordination to the priesthood. I had no idea of the ghosts Jan brought along with her to her divinity studies. I only knew that, after we graduated, she ended up leaving the ministry, and we lost touch.
But then her memoir came out, "The Secret Tribe," chronicling the resilience she discovered on her painful journey of recovery from a childhood of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Community was crucial to her healing--the "secret tribe" was in fact a network of abuse survivors--and still is. But now she possesses the hard-won wisdom of what constitutes good community, what constitutes bad, and when it's better not to belong at all.
Jan and I discuss all of this in this week's episode of The Mystic Cave. We all need to belong. But, eventually, we need to learn to accept ourselves, love ourselves, and to be judicious about who we choose as our travelling companions along the way. Perhaps, belonging is only possible when we have made peace with ourselves, and no longer need to belong ... at all.
To hear our conversation, simply press the Play button, below ...