I have struggled with belonging what seems like my whole life. Never truly feeling like I was accepted for who I am. Always feeling like I needed to change in order to conform to the widely divergent expectations of others. I have always felt like an outsider looking in on life.
I think that is partly because of the way my brain is wired. In 1983 I took the Graduate Record Exam. It is a test similar to the SAT or ACT, but it is for people applying to graduate school (I was applying to seminary for my Master of Divinity). There was a logic portion of the test back then and I scored a 98, meaning I scored better than 98% of those who were taking the GRE back then. It means I have a highly analytical brain, which is why things like math and music come easily to me.
Plato quotes Socrates as teaching, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The problem with my brain is that I tend to examine my life too much. There are many days when I wish I could shut my brain off and just be. Since I like to analyze everything, I have many description for how my brain works. Here’s one: As a boy I had one of those Hotwheels race tracks that had a set of spinning wheels that sent a car careening toward a banked turn on an oval track. Every time the car came back around and hit those wheels again it would go screaming forward nearly flying off the track. Then it would complete the oval and do it all over again.
For those of you who know someone who has a clinical diagnosis of depression, this is also how I would describe my experience of ruminating. My mind gets stuck in a loop of negative self-criticism. “Why did I …?” “If only ….” “I shoulda, coulda, woulda, oughta, ….” On, and on, and on careening around an oval track being constantly reignited every time I come around to those spinning wheels again. The problem with an oval, it’s like a circle with no beginning and no end. Except the beginning often happens when I wake up at 2:30 in the morning and start pacing the floor going over and over a conversation or action of the previous day or month or year or decade. Yes, I sometimes ruminate about mistakes I made decades in the past.
If you want to understand ADHD, there is a great book titled, “Driven to Distraction” by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey published in 1994. I’m sure there are others that are newer, but that was the one that caused the lightbulb to go on for me.
“And now back to our regularly scheduled program.”
It is hard to develop a feeling of belonging when you constantly have to tell your brain to “Shut up!” because it is going off on tangents that wouldn’t make sense to HEY LOOK! A SQUIREL!
In “The gift of Imperfection” 2010, Dr. Brene Brown describes belonging in this way:
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
Fitting in is what I have had to do most of my life. And I have a feeling the majority of you reading this would agree with that. I see people yearning to feel true belonging, but settling for just fitting in because that’s all they can hope to achieve. Things like Tattoos. I remember an episode of the TV show MASH where Radar O’Reilly wanted to get a tattoo so he wouldn’t be bullied by other soldiers. In the end he got a teddy bear on his butt, much to the disappointment of Hawkeye and B.J., only to reveal that it was only temporary.
Let me be clear. I am NOT criticizing people who get tattoos. But there are some who get them because they like body art and want to display their inner identity through amazing color and design on their skin. However, there are others who get tattoos because they yearn to be part of a group of people they admire, or think that by getting a tattoo they will be admired and accepted by others with tattoos.
Or, Harley Davidson. I continue to maintain my motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license for those occasions when I get the chance to ride someone’s bike. I like motorcycles. I like Harleys. But how many of the people that we see wearing Harley Davidson clothing have ever ridden a motorcycle? Or ever will? There are plenty who do, and I have had some marvelous conversations with them. Like the guy with the Hell’s Angels jacket I met at a wedding in Las Vegas. I was in my suit and clerical collar and we spent about an hour talking off to the side of the reception. He was an interesting person I will never forget. He loved delivering Toys for Tots on his Harley at Christmas.
But how many others wear the clothing because they want to be perceived as a Harley rider? And how many more go so far as to buy an actual Harley so they can take the fitting in illusion even farther.
It’s like all the people wearing clothing from that Arm Pit brand. People of all ages displaying the Arm Pit logo on their clothes because they want to fit in. Oh, my bad, I mean Under Armor. Years ago the cool fitting in clothes required the IZOD label. I met a young teen who paid $700.00 for a pair of shoes, which she is afraid to wear and get dirty, so she keeps them in a box in her closet hoping her parents won’t find them. Just for the emotional boost of being able to tell others that she owns them, and by owning them it makes her feel like she fits in. But fitting in is false belonging.
In “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” 2017, Dr. Brene Brown asked groups of 8th graders, “What is the difference between belonging and fitting in?” Their answers were very poignant:
“Belonging is being somewhere you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.”
“Belonging is being accepted for being you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”
“If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”
And the most sobering answer came when they talked about belonging at home:
One student wrote: “Not belonging at school is really hard, but it’s nothing compared to what it feels like when you don’t belong at home.” When Dr. Brown asked the students what that meant here’s some of the examples they used:
Not living up to their parents’ expectations.
Not being as cool or as popular as your parents want you to be.
Not being good at the same things your parents were good at.
Your parents being embarrassed because you don’t have enough friends or you’re not an athlete or a cheerleader.
Your parents not liking who you are and what you like to do.
When your parents don’t pay attention to your life.
When you don’t feel you belong in the world, at least you have a safe sanctuary where you can retreat from the world, relax, stop the worrying. That place we call home.
But when home is not safe, where do you turn? For Harry Potter it was Hogwarts/Gryffindor/Mrs. Weasley.
Other fictional characters have had their retreat/sanctuary/hidout/etc.:
For Frodo it was The Shire. Or Rivendell
For Batman, the Batcave.
For the Black Panther it’s Wakanda.
For Wonder Woman it’s Themyscira or Paradise Island.
Even superheroes need a place to call home where they can be themselves and feel safe. It is a fundamental basic human need to belong.
So, where can you be authentically you? Be safe and have a sense of true belonging?
Where is your Hogwarts?