by Troy Chapman
Do you belong in the life you’re living? Do you feel that you belong? These may seem like odd questions but I think many of us often do not feel a sense of belonging where we are. If I’m not careful, I can easily lose this sense here in prison, where the place is designed to be somebody else’s world.
But this isn’t unique to prison. Belongingness isn’t something that’s nurtured in commercial culture. For one thing, it’s often easily misunderstood for fitting in and conforming. But these are by no means the same things. Indeed, the level of fitting in and conforming seen in any group of people is an inverse indicator of the level of genuine belonging. People who feel a genuine sense of belonging feel free to engage in self expression. Where the sense of belonging is absent, people feel pushed more toward the extremes of conformity and rebellion, the latter of which is often mistaken for self-expression, but is really just reverse conformity.
So what is belonging if it’s not fitting in?
It seems to me there are different answers to this question. Belonging is in part a sense of “rightness,” right now. When I’m belonging, things may not be perfect but I feel that my life is happening right now, as opposed to feeling I’m in some strange waiting room, tapping my foot, waiting for my life to begin.
There’s also belonging to our own time and place. I have at times felt like I should have been born a century ago — that I belong to a different time and place. This might seem harmless enough, but I’ve realized it brings on a sense of not belonging where I am and not respecting my life by being present in my time and culture as it is. So another part of belonging is feeling like we are living not only here but now.
Right next to this is a sense that our station in life is right, as well. This doesn’t mean locking ourselves into our current station forever, but simply acknowledging that it’s not some cosmic error that we are a bus driver, teacher, cop, nurse, stay-at-home mom, prisoner/writer and so on. We may well belong somewhere else in the future, but right now, in this moment, we belong where we are. To embrace this is to give ourselves fully to our own lives — i.e., to belong to our own lives.
The same can be said about our chronological ages. Our culture works incessantly to tell us it’s infinitely preferable to be 20 years old with perfect bodies and all our choices still laid out before us. If that sounds crazy, that’s because it is. But we often feel that this head of gray hair, this bad eyesight, the aches in our joints are an accident of some sort and we spend endless resources of time, money and mental energy trying to correct them. But again, these changes are no mistake. Whether we are young, middle-aged or old, we are precisely where we’re supposed to be.
Another aspect of belonging is having a sense that our take on life is necessary and legitimate. One of the things we teach in our weekly ethics group here is that each of us sits on a slightly different location around the wheel of life. As a result, we all see things from a slightly different perspective and every perspective is necessary for humankind to know the “truth.” Thus to delegitimize, or allow someone to delegitimize, another’s perspective is an act of violence to the truth. So too is giving up our own perspective and adopting someone else’s. We should never apologize for nor be ashamed of our truth but rather we should give ourselves to it and belong to it as it belongs to us. (And owning our truth in this way means not holding fast to it as a rigid and unchanging thing, but being in dialogue with it, being open to its unfolding and evolution.)
And I guess this is the last thing I’ll say about belonging for now: it’s something we have to choose to do. Others can invite us to belong, they can make a place for us, but they can’t give us a sense of belonging, which means of course that they can’t take it away, either. They can and will try to displace us in various ways and for various reasons but when we decide that we belong where we are, there’s not really much anyone can do about it.
It does take an effort — again and again — to claim and maintain belonging, but the alternative is to live our lives always in the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong age and so on. It is to be refugees in our own lives and that’s a lot more work than the effort demanded to belong.