Some Thoughts On Belonging

When I was six years old, I distinctly remember knowing exactly what being a follower of Jesus meant to me. Our homeschool group held weekly “park days”, where a large group of moms would sit and chat while all of us kids ran around on a playground or in a field playing together. When I was six, making clubs became very chic among us youngsters: “girls’ club”, “boy’s club”, “vegetarians’ club”, clubs based on what books we liked or didn’t like, you name it. However, for some, part of the appeal of this fun, new trend was that some people were “in” and some people were “out”. This did not sit well with six-year-old Hailey; so I set out to create one, all-inclusive club that anyone and everyone could and would be part of. I called it “the Jesus club”, not because I had any desire to evangelize my fellow elementary schoolers, but because I truly believed that this was the kind of club Jesus would form–a club where anyone is welcomed, just the way they are, with no conditions or tests to pass in order to belong, no criteria to fit, just a place where everyone belongs. So I ran all over the playground, eager to make sure that everyone knew about my club that everyone could be part of. Of course, as a first grader, I had very little concept of who my audience was. I didn’t understand that you just don’t run around inviting people to your “Jesus club” in San Francisco.
“Do you want to join my Jesus club?!” I excitedly asked one of the intimidating older girls (by older girl, I mean, she was 9).
“No!” She scoffed, wrinkling her nose in disgust and tossing her head, “I’m not religious.”
I was hurt and confused, but kept right on making sure everyone knew that they were welcome in “the Jesus club”. (Although, on the car ride home I did have to ask my mom what “religious” meant.)

Six-year-old Hailey
Six-year-old Hailey

As a six-year-old I had an unquestioned sense of belonging. I knew that not everyone would always like me, I knew that I wouldn’t be friends with everyone (as disappointing as that was), but I also knew that I belonged in the largest sense of the word. I had complete faith that my life fit into a larger picture, and that even though it may be small in the grand scheme of things, it mattered anyway.

Needless to say, my twenty-year-old self does not always find these truths as easy to believe. Twenty-year-old Hailey feels like she doesn’t quite fit anywhere, she worries that she’ll never find love, that her life doesn’t matter and that she will live with her parents forever because the idea of finding another home is terrifying. But, oh goodness, she wants to find that home. No matter how scary that longing is, she wants to find that larger sense of home so badly.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that these fears and longings are not entirely unique to me. In fact, I would hazard a guess that they are very common, especially in my fellow young adults. This stage of life is full of searching for things, like one big life treasure hunt. This can feel very stressful and isolating. “Quick! I have to find important and meaningful work, a college degree that will be useful but that I am passionate about, a place to live, a significant other, a close-knit group of friends with whom I can create a support system…” The list goes on and on, as if we have to do everything we are going to do in life in the short and turbulent decade that is our twenties. This is, of course, not true. But sometimes it certainly feels that way, and I think that for many of us the anxiety about crossing things off of our life treasure hunt stems from a strong desire to belong. We’re in a hurry to find where we’re supposed to be in both a physical and metaphorical sense. However, I would suggest that the answer doesn’t lie in looking, but in creating.

For me, this means striving to be more like six-year-old Hailey. I want to be at peace, having faith in a greater belonging. I want to trust that I am part of a larger story, and that no matter how small, my part matters. And I want to be less concerned about finding where I fit in, and more concerned with creating spaces of belonging for the people in my life. In fact, I think shifting that focus is an important first step. For me, it is relatively easy to see how the people in my life fit into a larger story. I do not question their belonging the way I question my own. However, when I attempt to create spaces and situations that help them feel like they belong, I am forced to align myself with them and recognize that I, too, belong.

In case all of that sounds completely vague, let me clarify. Creating spaces of belonging is not some fancy, grand process. It doesn’t mean moving into a house with five people you want to live in community with, or hosting a regular gathering, or anything like that (although it could mean either of those things). When I say creating spaces, I simply mean making everyday choices and cultivating patterns in your relationships that give the other person a safe space and a sense of belonging. Make time for people, remind them that their feelings and struggles are valid, go the extra mile to make them feel loved, be honest with them, reassure them that they matter and belong, allow yourself to be a safe place for someone who may not have one. It sounds really simple, like cheesy friendship advice out of one of those American Girl books I had when I was nine. But treating everyone out of the belief that they are beloved truly does cultivate a greater sense of belonging in both you and them.

So, now, like the good college student I am, I will answer the “so what”? So what? Who needs belonging anyways? Are you saying that I am not an independent individual? Are you saying that I need other people to be happy? Well, in a way, yes. Sure, we are all independent individuals, but we’re also so closely knit that you simply cannot isolate your existence from anyone else’s existence. As humans we share everything. So, you have two choices: you can reject the idea that we all belong and live in a world where some people belong and others don’t (warning: this route leads to war, sadness, oppression and lots of other not-so-fun circumstances) OR you can choose to live into the belief that we all belong (warning: pain is a side effect of caring, so, sadly, there is no easy option). I believe that choosing to live into this belief and align ourselves with a bigger story helps us realize our full potential to create change, beauty and meaningful relationships.

Moral of the story: As a person on this planet, you belong just as much as every other person on this planet. You matter to the greater story and don’t need to match any criteria to prove your belonging. We all face times where we do not feel that greater belonging and struggle to accept it. That is okay. (But even when you feel this way you do still belong and there’s nothing you can do about it.) Living into that sense of belonging is what allows us to unlock our full potential and create meaningful relationships. Treat others with the knowledge that they belong just as much as you. And treat yourself with the knowledge that you belong just as much as anyone else.

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