When we think of belonging, we often think of a place, people, or culture that makes us feel welcome. We crave kinship and emotionally available humans. The implied focal point is usually the self and we gauge how another may create a sense of affinity in us. If we flip the coin though, we’ll see that the other side of this equation is us. These humans that we crave belonging from crave all of the same things back. If belonging has been a consistent desire across cultures and time, and everyone desperately craves it, what gets in the way?
Our modern lives reinforce a few recurrent themes:
- We don’t decipher the need: Belonging was easier to achieve when we lived in close-knit collectives and became intertwined with others across generations through biological likeness and cultural shorthands. In modernity, we increasingly bump up against those with different cultural shorthands from us. We can’t always accurately decipher another’s emotional rhythm and don’t realize when we’re drawing inaccurate assumptions and conclusions, often in haste.
- We don’t overlap enough in terms of time: Connection can happen quickly, belonging takes time. True belonging, the one where our roots go deep into the communal substrate, needs time. A few interactions are great but consistent interactions over a long period are what informs us that we aren’t just fair-weather companions. Belonging then, is a sense of affinity that is derived over a period of time through our seemingly small interactions with others. We now flit around more easily from geography to geography, job to job, relationship to relationship, and context to context. No one context gets enough of our attention unless we intentionally make it so.
- The relational sheen wears off up close: The more we are with another human, the more sides of them we’ll see. There is more opportunity to witness messiness and sticking points. Every real relationship goes through moments of stress followed by the potential for shared sense-making. Belonging gets unlocked when we show up after these stressful moments for imperfect practice with a committed other. This implies two things: mutuality and showing up despite feeling inadequate. But if after these moments of stress, we turn to the endless online shelf of humans where the next shiny person awaits, we’ll keep repeating loops of shiny discovery followed by heartache without ever learning how to be in relationship.
In our modern context, everything―except the desire for belonging―has changed. We don’t have overlapping histories, biology, norms and time. We are surrounded by countless potential sources of belonging but they come with bodies, identities, mindsets and experiences unlike ours and with time as limited as ours. We don’t always depend on the same set of people and contexts for both survival and thriving. We rarely get to know all of another, often seeing them in a specific context which is reduced and distributed. We hardly get to see the integrated whole of each other, even when we’re emotionally close. Finally, we encounter a lot more people which cultivates the behavior of “infinite-swipe”. If not this, then there’s always another and then another.
The repeatable outcome is that it’s easier to surf the surface of humanity without dropping anchor. Easier to accumulate judgments and faulty stories about others. Easier to hurt each other and move on without realizing that, in the process, we changed ourselves for the worse. Easier to feel compelled to guard ourselves, and easier for everyone to end up guarding themselves to the brink of isolation.
But tuning back into belonging isn’t overly difficult work, it’s just uncomfortable at times. It requires everyday attentiveness and responsibility. It’s a psychological shift to reorient our focus from short-term material accumulation to the humans in front of us. To bypass the inclination to compare, acquire, and dominate. To remembering that every single thing we get to do, dream about, and achieve is enabled by humans we know and those we’ll never know.
We have rich ancestral wisdom to help us here. While modernity has added layers of complexity, forgetting our connectedness is not a new problem. Our ancestors too felt the need to remember. For instance, versions of the golden rule―treat others as you want to be treated―appear across all cultures. Some additional examples:
- The African philosophy of Ubuntu is summarized as “I am because you are”.
- The Zulu greeting Sawubona means “I see you” and it’s common response Shiboka means “I exist for you”. They remind us to recognize each other’s worth and dignity.
- The same Indian greeting Namaste is used while bowing to the divine and greeting other humans.
- Ojigi, the Japanese greeting, is a physical bow and a signal of respect, gratitude or apology in social and religious situations.
I’m certain we have timeless wisdom in every culture to remind us of our interconnectedness. These greetings, rituals and philosophies aren’t antiquated. They are psychological reminders and everyday shorthands to break the circuit of self-absorption, fear and disconnection. They help us turn to each other as lovingly and fully as we want to be turned to, to accompany each other as we want to be accompanied.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”― Edith Wharton, writer and designer