Belonging resonates at the very heart of the human experience. Each one of us possesses an innate need to belong to something larger than ourselves. To seek belonging is a primary means giving our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. In the absence of belonging we feel alone and isolated. Whether it is family, religion, work, community, culture, activism, or a common movement, the need for belonging manifests itself in myriad ways across the human experience. Belonging is a search for vitality and reverence; it is the deep mythological struggle to find inspiring and meaningful ways to relate, connect, and interact with the world around us.
Aging means we belong to the natural world. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.
– Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
The origins of our belonging remain hidden within the vast, mysterious cycles and rhythms of life that are too broad and expansive for human comprehension to grasp. The essence of our belonging is the simple yet remarkable fact that we find ourselves here in the midst of something called life, rather than nothing at all. It is surprising to find ourselves here in the midst of life animated by invisible forces that have offered us the revelation of existence.
The inevitables in life create the underlying ground of belonging. Our shared habitat is the flow of time and the transience of all things. The fate of every human being is to experience both an uncertain and limited amount of time in life. Our presence here is fragile and temporary. In other words, all forms of belonging originate in the rhythms of impermanence.
To be human is to possess a deep desire to know the unknowable. Our existence is intimately connected to the mystery of the unknown. This profound sense of uncertainty that is the bedrock of our existence is our primary and most essential source of creativity. To consciously plunge into the depths of our unknowing on a quest for a deeper sense belonging to the world is to embrace the sacred artistry of myth, poetry, and narrative.
Aging is an elemental force of life that requires our participation; there is no form of life that is exempted from senescence. In this sense, aging defines our most intimate and personal relationship with time. The process of growing older is a natural and universal form of participation with the elemental forces of life from which there is no escape. To become older is to courageously participate in the deepest and most profound sense of belonging that remains firmly rooted in the immense, mysterious powers that generate the confluence of life on our planet.
At its core, belonging is an exhilarating yet frightening recognition of the impenetrable mystery of our own being. We do not know where we were before we were born; we do not know where we will go after we have died. We are left to wonder if our life is little more than a momentary blip within the vast cycles of generations that constantly emerge and vanish across the planet. Belonging can easily morph into longing.
Not all forms of belonging are beneficial to us. Belonging can also be a source of confinement. Human beings have developed ideologies of belonging that inspire peace and cooperation as well as conflict, war, and horrific tragedy. A basic characteristic of human civilization is the border, which simultaneously defines an internal community of belonging while imposing a form of separation from the rest of the world. One of our main tasks in life is to embrace the spirit of connection and relationship, rather than that seclusion and isolation.
All forms of culture are experiments in belonging. The foundation of a culture is a set of assumptions, idea, beliefs, traditions, and rules about how to live. To belong to a particular culture is to adopt a language and a set of shared beliefs that create the underlying ground of how we interact and relate to one another. In this sense, culture offers us a sense of community, commonality, and security.
Perhaps the language of a culture is the most intimate and powerful source of belonging; to share a language is to share a mode of thinking, interpreting, observing, and understanding the world around us. And yet, languages continue to disappear around the world at an alarming rate. When a language disappears a perspective on how to live is also lost. The end result is that the underlying ground of our humanity becomes increasingly smaller, constricted, and less interesting.
In a negative sense, cultural belonging is a form of assimilation. We are, in a sense, absorbed into a particular culture through the experience of youth. During the second half of life, however, we may begin to question the deeper nature and mystery of our belonging and realize that our cultural conditioning is not large enough for us to live within any longer. This separation represents a generous yet painful release from our conditioning. It is the beginning of a journey into the deeper realms of belonging where we are graced with the merciful recognition that we are all fundamentally the same; that we all do in fact belong to a single, common, yet broken humanity – and that we all need to help each other.
There is a dark side to belonging. It can degenerate into cultish forms of attachment and addictive forms of grasping. When we develop an irrational attachment to something that is too small for us, we experience a painful sense of inner confinement and closure. Sometimes our grasping can degenerate into physical addiction and we can become confined by habits and routines that immobilize our spirit and impair our experience of life. Our sense of belonging, in this circumstance, degrades into a form of enslavement.
Grief ensnares us in a crisis of belonging. We are all required to endure the pain and suffering caused by the death of family and friends. Loss generates a profound sense of loneliness and abandonment and our sense of belonging can become severely wounded. In the midst of bereavement, our relationship with the world becomes unearthed and our sense of identity is disturbed by powerful tremors of uncertainty. The underlying ground of our being experiences a seismic shift and the terrain of our own life becomes jagged and unfamiliar.
We all must journey through pain. Inevitably, parts of our lives are scraped away with a harsh, grinding abrasive that causes our identity to bleed and our consciousness to become wounded and vulnerable. To inspire belonging requires an authentic and solitary conversation on the raw and bleeding edges of our own unique circumstances.
The tragedy of suicide is the result of no longer being able to belong to our own life. The feeling of existence has become too difficult and excruciating to endure and to abandon our own life is a means to seek relief from our pain and suffering. We cannot grasp any meaningful sense of hope or redemption in continuing to belong to the world we find ourselves in. Our sense of isolation becomes completely debilitating. And the thought of belonging to anything, including our own life, becomes too horrific to consider.
Each one of us is required to undertake a uniquely personal journey across the inhospitable terrain of loss. And in these moments, our primary task is to revitalize and recreate our sense of belonging to the world around us by venturing into the heart of our sadness and grief in order to discover what awaits us. That is to say, we must belong to our grief and the harsher realities of existence as much as the lighter and joyful realities.
Aging imposes a limitation on our time in life. One of the most important tasks of aging is to develop a deep sense of belonging with the limitations, uncertainties, unknowns, and mystery that form the universal ground of humanity. The most courageous and beautiful expression of belonging is gratitude. To embrace the grace of gratitude is to belong to life exactly as it is and to be free of the desire to want a life that is different from the one we already have. Gratitude does not eliminate the suffering and difficulties that seek us out, but it is a core discipline that helps us to navigate the shocking levels of loss we are all required to endure throughout the normal course of a human lifetime.
The experience of aging is a form of intimate conversation with the natural, relentless flow of life. Aging is the primal scream of our common humanity and a universal declaration of our deepest sense of belonging to one another. Every human life experiences the relentless trajectory of aging while moving through an uncertain and limited amount of time. The feeling of aging is the underlying pulse of our humanity.
Belonging is a means to continue a meaningful relationship with the people that have vanished from life. Their true legacy is not found in the possessions they have left behind, but in the sense of beauty, appreciation, and gratitude we experience in our reminiscence of them. While a sense of sadness inevitably persists, its presence in our life evolves. We are all caretakers of belonging to the people that matter most in our life, most especially in their absence.
Belonging is an act of courage, a call to adventure, and a pilgrimage into an uncertain terrain. Each human life forms its own unique narrative that has never occurred before and will never happen again. Our experience in life is, by default, absolutely unique. To cultivate belonging is to seek joy, happiness, and gratitude while courageously accepting the risk of pain, sadness, and grief along the way. Sometimes, belonging demands our participation in the form of taking that first step that we don’t really want to take.
Perhaps one of the greatest human endeavours is the quest to discover a deep, absolute, and immovable sense of belonging to the entire breadth and magnitude of existence. Part of the discipline of belonging is learning to negotiate a pathway through the joyful as well as the painful thresholds of experience that inevitably emerge along our way. In a deep sense, all life is an apprenticeship in belonging.