Sh*t To Help You Show Up February 19, 2021
On Belonging to Yourself and Others
I have been ruminating on belonging.
We are a social species. Evolutionarily, the drive to belong contributes to our survival. Scientifically, we are made up of atoms that once were stars and so are never separate from anything or anyone. But psychologically we always exist in the midst of a negotiation between autonomy and belonging, between belonging to ourselves and others. As Anne Marie Vivienne writes in The House Journal:
Scientifically speaking, we only exist in and through relationship— I am made up of atoms, electrons, genes, DNA, blood, sun, wind, and microbes that are both ancient and new. Yes, my body is me, but it is made of human and inhuman parts. If we are made up of everything else, who is the self? Who is you, and how do you belong to the world of happenings? Yes, you are made up of everything else, and yet you are you––trying to discover your place and relationship and meaning in this world.
We do our initial learning about belonging with others in our first family. Though I know intellectually that there are people who don’t grow up feeling alienated, separate, or somehow “off” in their family of origin, I don’t know any of those people. Like attracts like, I guess.
For me, the dissonance between my first family and me emerged early and centered around my relationship with my siblings. The physical reality that “one of these things is not like the others” was immediately obvious.
The more subtle dissonance— between the story we were officially telling, the story we aspired to, and the story we were actually living together— was something I came to understand later. Developmentally, I had to acquire the language and the capacity for self-reflection to be able to parse that one.
The sense of wrongness pervaded my experience early, though, aided by the ten-year age difference between my oldest brother and me. When he was entering the extreme throws of adolescent alienation I was in kindergarten. He and our parents were too wrapped up in their conflicts with each other to think at all about my presence on the sidelines, witnessing it all and trying to find my place in it.
Meanwhile, I was already deep in the hidden dangers of my relationship with the younger of my older brothers. There was a vast, dark space between “bedtime” and sleep, when he and I were left to our own devices and I learned what it is to be prey. By first grade, I was a latchkey kid, like so many of us in those days, which only increased the number of unsupervised, dangerous hours in my days. Belonging to him was not unlike how the mouse belongs to the cat. The terror of the plaything is half the fun.
But it wasn’t until high school, tumbled by the waves of my own adolescent alienation, that I started to put words to my experience in all of the relationships I didn’t choose— first family, classmates, the children of my parent’s friends. The path to belonging was littered with parts of myself that I had to lop off in order to barter for entrance.
My divorce, when I was jettisoned so abruptly out of my attempt to create what I thought was true belonging, was the final lesson on that difference. I’ve always reflexively rebelled against romantic mythologies about being “completed” by someone else, but I still tried to live that story because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I thought I could be safe, as long as I was choosing who to barter with. I had to learn, painfully, that bartering away parts of yourself to belong is always a dead-end bargain.
It’s a great conundrum. We must be in relationship to experience ourselves fully, and yet our social contracts so often are based on being less than whole.
It can be a long, painful, lonely road to unpack your history, retrace your steps, in order to reclaim all the lost pieces of yourself. You have to retract the sticky tentacles of your projections, learn to bear the weight of sole responsibility for your choices. You have to accept the discomfort of letting the people that you love be who they are, which is, more often than not, different than who you are. But with all of that work in progress, you have the potential to renegotiate the contracts. You can belong and be in your integrity at the same time; you can belong with other people and to yourself.
LOVE AFTER LOVE
by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
I still find not fitting in, which I mostly do not, uncomfortable. But avoiding that discomfort is no longer a motivating factor for me in my decisions. It is just part of the inevitable suffering of sharing space with other humans. Not belonging to myself is much more painful, and is, for me, unnecessary suffering.
Not inflicting unnecessary suffering on other people and myself is a guiding premise in my life now. It keeps me out of all sorts of trouble.
Figuring out how to articulate my faith in a way that opens doors to connect rather than staking out fences to separate always leaves me feeling terribly vulnerable, but it’s also part of how I belong to myself and all of you at the same time. I hope you’ll read it, and join me there.
Sending much love to each and every one of you. Thank you for supporting my work. Please share widely, like (click the heart!), comment, and SUBSCRIBE if you haven’t already. Let’s grow this conversation.