“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.” – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much. “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”
Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance. Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”
The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood – it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness. Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”
Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness. In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.
Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky – you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.
What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”
As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on. Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!
By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter – it donned on me that this is where belonging is born – if we are up for the journey.
Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us – a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance. Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.
The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.
Who doesn’t want to be seen – to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.
God sees us for who we are. God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging. Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.
Let your light so shine!