2014.05.15 Belonging

It seems to pop up in discussions wherever people congregate away from home, this discussion of what belonging is and who one belongs with. (Actually, I just used one of the loaded words in this discussion: "home"):

A while back this beautiful article in New York Times pondered the issue of where one would go if knowing that this would be one's last weeks in this life. The author would go back to his grandfather's cottage.

I was checking out a questionnaire by an Indian researcher looking into people moving from the countryside to cities, and one question asked if the person "stayed with family". In an email conversation we had, she said that "staying with family" to Indians always meant that somebody from your extended family probably already lived in the city and you would go live with them until you could afford your own place. It didn't mean that you just lived with your husband or wife and children, as much family as they might be.

So that opens a lot of questions. Where is home? When you think of family, do you always think of those before you or also about those who come after? Who do you belong with? Can you belong with people who came from somewhere else? What does it take "to belong"?

Personally, I find it useful to look at the very small picture to understand the bigger: I belong with my spouse. And that is a daily confirmed choice.

My husband wasn't my family originally. We didn't grow up together. Yes, we did grow up in the same country, and that gives us a shared frame of reference when it comes to a lot of life experiences.

But then we have children. Don't we belong with them as they grew up on a different continent? Off course we do! So although they have had different experiences in time and place, there can still be feelings of belonging together. Not 100% of the times, but more often than not.

When I was in my early twenties, I visited with family in Colorado. I think it is safe to say that our only commonality was some shared genes. They had grown up raising cattle and riding horses in the Rocky Mountain foothills and I was coding software while living so close to the ocean that the country's area will probably be reduced by 50% within the next century. But there still was an immediate connection and a feeling of belonging.

My take away is that the shared experience may make connection easier, but belonging is founded on Trust. To me, belonging is the feeling I get when I feel that judgment about me is suspended and replaced by a code of good faith. Belonging is not where I feel that people are trying to take advantage of me or I need to be on guard all the time. And in that, country doesn't matter.

Does that make it impossible to belong with people from other cultures? Trust is partly founded on predictability, and the culture differences do wreck predictability. But Trust is also founded on honesty and humility, and if you can find people who can be honest when you make gaffes without belittling you, or people who don't only care about your gaffes because they, too, know they make mistakes, trust can carry the day.

I am fortunate to have many good people in my life. They are from all over the world and some are closer than people I grew up with. To my best knowledge, we are in no way related - although I naturally can't vouch for what my Viking ancestors may have spread here or hither. If I should think of one thing that they almost all have in common, it is the experience of at some point in their lives they have lived "away from home" or in other ways been outsiders in their communities. They accept that there is more than one way to be a decent person.

Fortunately, I don't mind belonging with "the outsiders". After all, where I live we are at least half the population. And if I listen to what people say, the other half often feel like outsiders, too; they just don't have my immigrant-excuse to talk about it.

We all look for where we belong. If we open our hearts and suspend judgment, it just may find us.