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How to Belong When the World Wants You Lonely


Douglas Taylor

We start from this recognition that we all have cracks and broken places in our lives and in our hearts. We all carry experiences of loneliness and heartache. How beautiful it can be when we’ve healed and allow ourselves to reveal the healing rather than hide it; when we witness for others that healing can happen, that it does happen quite often. We all can shine because we all are broken. And the way this works and holds true is when we recognize that it’s not about the cracks and broken places. It’s about the love that flows through.

There is a love holding us

There is a love holding all that we love

There is a love holding all

We rest in this love

But it’s not always like that, is it? Too often though we receive messages that our broken places, our healing places, are somehow ugly or unsightly. We learn, unfortunately to be ashamed of the wounds we have received and overcome. That we are not welcome to let our brokenness shine. We receive messages to hide our blemishes and imperfections as if they are bad. That if we want to fit in, we need to not be broken. If we want to fit in, we need to not let our scars show. If we want to fit in, we need to be something other than what we actually are.

I’ve been thinking about this topic of ‘belonging’ for a while now. Tomorrow I am heading up to a colleagues’ meeting. The Saint Lawrence UU Ministers gathering happens twice each year. The Fall gathering begins tomorrow afternoon. We gather for some program time together, some worship, socializing, and just generally being together. One delightful practice we have is to invite a colleague to share their Odyssey or spiritual autobiography. This is similar to the Elder Wisdoms we have here in our congregation except at our clergy gathering we don’t structure it like an interview. What we call an Odyssey is a colleague sharing the story of their life, their spirituality, and their calling.

Well, as it happens. This year is my turn. Tomorrow I will be delivering my odyssey to my colleagues. This has me thinking about our topic of belonging because part of what I will share with them is that the root of my calling into ministry, which arises from what I have come to call a Crisis of Belonging. A pivotal aspect of my call to ministry centers around something that was missing for me in most places in my childhood but I found at church: a sense of belonging.

It is so hard, is it not, to feel like you do not belong. At the beginning of the month, during the First Sunday workshops, I hosted a small group workshop on the topic of Belonging. October’s monthly theme is Belonging. I remember how some people entered the conversation through the reverse question – not ‘when have you felt like you belonged?’ but ‘when have you felt like you did not?’ It is somehow easier to access those memories and feelings of being excluded or forgotten.

So, to talk about ‘belonging’ often is to begin by talking about experiences in which we have been excluded, shamed, and the countless ways in which we have felt we do not belong. Certainly, that is my experience. The concept of ‘belonging’ raises an initial flood of memories and feelings in me about not belonging. According to Dr. Brene Brown, this is normal. She says this, I remember, in her very first TED talk way back in 2010, the one about vulnerability. If you have 20 minutes some evening, search online for Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability, it is well worth a second viewing too.

She was talking about her experience of researching the topic of vulnerability and authenticity. She explained: “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they tell you the most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.” She thought she was studying connection and discovered she was actually doing research on shame. Because that’s what blocks us. Shame and fear block us from connection, from belonging.

Our society actually encourages this loneliness and disconnection. Your loneliness is not a problem, only an as-yet unmet market niche! We’ve sorted ourselves into factions. It can be exhausting trying to deal with disagreeable and strident people with whom we disagree. I get it. It makes sense that we would start to circle in among like-minded souls simply to maintain some sanity. But that’s actually not helping. I contend that’s actually what our dysfunctional capitalist society wants us to do because it makes us lonelier.

We focus in with like-minded people, those with whom we don’t have to argue. We’ve done this in an effort to belong but ironically it just continues to drive our loneliness deeper. Narrowing the circle to which we belong only serves to shield us from different opinions and perspectives that frustrate us or challenge us. We may be less stressed but we don’t grow. And interestingly, it doesn’t help us feel like we belong. It only makes us feel more embattled.

According to a research book from 2009 called The Big Sort by Bill Bishop, as people

“… choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable – the nation grows more politically segregated – and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.” (quoted in Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown, p 46)

It perhaps seems counter-intuitive, but to increase your sense of belonging, of connection, seek out people and opinions that are dissimilar to your own. It broadens your base of belonging.

In that Bill Bishop book from ten years back, there are some statistics. He writes, “In 1976 less than 25 percent of Americans lived in places there the presidential election was a landslide.” Meaning, over 75% of us lived in places where there was a variety of opinion. Folks mingled more back then. How much more? “In 2016,” Brene Brown tells us “80 percent of US counties were a landslide” for either the Democrat or Republican candidate. Most of us no longer live near people who are different from us in terms of social and political issues.

Interestingly, Brene points out that at the same time, the number of people reporting feelings of loneliness jumped from 20% in the 80’s to over 40% today. Karen Marsh sent me an article just yesterday corroborating that last statistic. The article was about a recent Cigna study of 20 thousand Americans on the topic of loneliness published just last year The study found 46% – almost half – of the participants reported they “sometimes or always feel alone or left out.”

And this is at the same time we are sorting ourselves into finer niches and factions. It’s corollary rather than causal, I know that. But it’s still suggestive. And when you sit with it, doesn’t it make sense? We separate ourselves out from people who think differently and we lose the benefit of deeper connections.

When we are driven into these lonely factions, we become more easily manipulated. Not just by markets trying to sell us spurious fixes for our isolation but also by our own inability to understand others. Our empathy withers, our capacity to be creative is curtailed, and our willingness to go out of our way for a stranger is circumscribed. We grow numb to our own suffering and that of others. And that, my friends, is the condition from which atrocities can arise.

What is the way out?

Buddhist teacher and civil rights activist Joan Halifax talks about ‘strong back, soft front.’ Her analysis is essentially the same as I’ve unpacked here, but they way she lays it out also reveals the way forward. She says,

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that is soft and open.” (quoted in Braving the Wilderness, p147)

So how do we go about this work of having a stronger back and a softer front? I think part of the implication in the suggestion is to accept our loneliness, to even welcome and lean-in to the lonely times in our lives. It is not the loneliness that creates isolation and disconnection. It is fear and shame. The more comfortable we become with out loneliness, the more ‘at home’ we become in almost any setting. We begin to recognize the love that is holding all that we love and that we rest in that love. We pour gold in the cracks of our lonely and broken lives, and shine.

This brings me back around to Dr. Brene Brown. One of her recent books is titled Braving the Wilderness, and it’s all about ‘belonging in a polarized culture.’ The heart of it all is the realization that, yes, it’s pretty bad out there. But what you have within you is better. The solution does not hinge on what is out there, on finding the right group or the right people. It’s about building it out there because you’ve already found it within yourself. Then we go out and find communities, not of like-minded people, but of like-hearted people.

Brene begins her book with the story of meeting Dr. Maya Angelou. Brene had idolized Maya for years, largely because of the wisdom from her poetry and her books. Maya Angelou had been a luminary for Brene over the years, an elder to look up to and learn from through her writings and public offerings.

But there was one quote Brene had found of Maya’s early on that struck her at the time and stuck with her for more than a decade. It disturbed her because it didn’t make sense. It was like the proverbial pebble in her shoe. Dr. Maya Angelou once said

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

It disturbed Brene because she – like all of us – had lived the experiences of exclusion, of not fitting in, of having no place to belong. She thought, the whole point of belonging is to have a place. I belong here or there.

I recognize this confusion. I often think about special places in my life, places in which I’ve felt connected, welcomed, seen. I think of places that feel like home. But really, when I think longer about it – those places are about connections with events and people. Sometimes those places where I feel I’ve belonged are about experiences I have of deeper connection with myself. It’s all less about the place and more something within me.

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.” Brene puts it like this: “I still thought of belonging as requiring something eternal to us… an experience that always involved others. … As I dug deeper into true belonging, it became clear that it’s not something we achieve of accomplish with others; it’s something we carry in our heart.” (Braving the Wilderness, p 32)

There is a love holding us

There is a love holding all that we love

There is a love holding all

We rest in this love

We all carry experiences of loneliness and heartache. How beautiful it can be when we’ve healed and allow ourselves to reveal the healing rather than hide it; when we witness for others that healing can happen, that it does happen quite often. It’s not about the cracks and broken places. It’s about the love that flows through.

Lean in to the differences around you. Don’t narrow your circle to only those like-minded souls who do not disturb your living. Seek the like-hearted. Let your own scars bear witness to your broken, lonely heart that you may better see the same in others. Belong nowhere, that you may belong everywhere. Be vulnerable, that you may rise in joy, worthiness, in love

In a world without end,

May it be so.