Somewhere I Belong…

As she sits in her car, she pauses and waits for the courage to appear, deep inside her she wants to desperately not go in today, but instead to drive away. she is frozen with fear in her seat,  the feeling creeps up and entangles her stomach, as she sucks in air the beast crushes her chest and restricts her breathing, suffocating her one breath at a time. Can she do it for another day, another day of not being accepted at work, another day of being on the outside looking in?

He waits again, hoping this time for his name to be called in the cold school gym. Always last to be picked, if only he had two arms to throw like the other boys, then he would be accepted, then he would be a champion just like them.

She drinks until she is funny, until she is sexy, and until she is not an outsider any-more. For tonight at least, she will be one of them with her new-found, short term alcohol induced confidence.

If only he didn’t have this accent, these eyes and this fuzzy hair, his new country may finally accept him and his fear and his pain will disappear, and he can walk down the street as one of them.

When Lila was finally accepted into the book club she realised this wasn’t her tribe. At 80 years old she could finally see them for what they really were; bigots and racists disguised as book loving citizens. Her tribe had always been the beaten down, the trodden warriors, the underdogs and the battlers. The problem was she hadn’t realise it until now.

When he unrolled that sleeping bag and smelt the bush flowers he knew he was home again he knew he belonged.

She waited each day, but the invite never came. She was the black sheep of the family and she knew in her heart she would not be invited to the wedding.

All of these scenarios trigger for all of us, some sort of memory of belonging or the dread of not belonging, somewhere, somehow or to someone. Belonging can bring us the greatest of highs and delivered the lowest of lows.

What if we created friendships, families, communities, states or a world where belonging was valued above all else, would then some of our most difficult problems we solved? Idealistic, maybe, but what if?  

Every human being has an innate need to connect and belong to other human beings. Humans are social beings with a strong survival instinct isn’t strong if we don’t have a sense of belonging.

What if the answer to our world’s problems such as addictions, violence, suicide and crime simply comes down to one simple factor? What if everyone got to experience that feeling that they really belong.

The truth is we all want a belonging that gives us the growth we need to be the best person we can be. For all the people out there that say ‘I can survive just fine on my own thanks!’  I say to you, I’m not making this stuff up; Social Researcher, Hugh Mackay says in his book ‘The Art of Belonging’ that “We are by nature, social creatures who congregate; it’s in our DNA. We are not good at surviving in isolation.”  Individuals need communities and communities need individuals to survive it’s as simple as that.

While we are good at working together, Hugh says we are also “self interested and competitive”. Now this presents a bit of a quandary for us and history has shown us examples many times over where this conflict exists in us all. Take for example some of our politicians who start out working for the common good only to be lured in by self-interest. I’m not judging, like I said it happens to us all, myself included.

Perhaps this is why team sports are so popular around the world. I have always played team sports and I am fascinated by teams in general.  In a team, you get to be an individual who works in a team, working towards the same goal. In a netball team you  cannot win if the team doesn’t work together to get the ball to the other end and in the net, it takes all 7 players to do their part as individuals. For the past 30 years netball has also given me a sense of belonging and a sense of self. It is only now when my knees creak with pain and the game is over for me, that I reflect and realise my tribe, my teams helped form how I see myself and gave me a sense of belonging that was so important that I kept coming back year after year, despite the pain in my joints.

Life is a little like a game of survivor we are always going to experience this self-interest need because it’s part of being a human but maybe the need to belong to a tribe is greater.

So for survival we do need each other, we desperately need to feel we belong and while we have Mother Theresa in our bones somewhere we also have that cut-throat self-interest that will always rear its curious head, especially as our world becomes more about self-interest and less about the greater good.

I have started watching a series called Man Up on the ABC exploring masculinity and its effects on male suicide. What struck me was something I have never heard before but had always knew. Suicide they said is ‘dying of loneliness’, although intellectually I knew this, hearing it made me so incredibly sad. No human being on earth should ever die of loneliness, because they don’t feel they belong, but sadly they do and daily. As a result of this dying from loneliness disease, leaves behind a trail of complex grief experienced by friends and family left behind to mull over the guilt and shame associated with suicide. Sometimes this is never resolved for those left behind.

Today we have far too many men, women and children dying from loneliness, we have young men and women flying to other countries to fight for radical terrorists they know nothing about. Is it because they feel isolated and alone here in their own country? Do they not feel they belong. We have women staying in abusive relationships for fear that they don’t belong anywhere else, ‘better the devil you know’. We have refugees and migrants forced outside of their communities because of racism, and fear from Australians who will not open the door to those needing a place to belong. I often wonder how would our diggers feel about this state of affairs? They fought for the right for people to feel safe and welcomed in this country, they fought for our belonging. I’m not saying that belonging is the only solution to these complex social issues but it sure as hell a good place to start.

This trend towards isolation in all parts of our communities is growing fast, just ask our aging population and our ever-increasing single person households. We are more connected in some ways technologically than ever before, but we are also more isolated and fearful like I have never seen before. If we continue to allow potential leaders to propose building walls, and closing the borders to anyone in need than we are working against our survival instincts..

When we start to head down the road of self obsession either as individuals or as nations, we end up seeing the world with tunnel vision. We only see what we want to see through narrowed filtered images, greed, vanity and selfishness. We have to start to question this notion of the individual being everything. Kim Kardashian is not everything, neither is her self obsessed husband. However something is happening in our communities that means we are making these individuals greater than the tribe. We see it with sports stars who become more important than anyone in their team and paid extraordinary amounts of money. How can that be? Isn’t the very essence of team about valued and equal contribution for a common goal? The risk with a self obsessed culture is that we miss out seeing who else needs inclusion, what they have to offer and we look inwards instead of outwards.

We are also feed this idea that individualism = happiness which is a myth. Happiness is just an emotion and like many emotions it can be fleeting in any given day. We are believing this idea that happiness is a destination to arrive at but life isn’t like that, happiness occurs alongside sadness, anger and a range of other emotions as we go through life. What we need to do is recognise it when it happens and enjoy the moments. Fame, things or money do not = happiness but we all try to strive to get there wherever there is. Think about a time you felt absolute joy, were you alone? Probably not, you were probably with friends or family doing something really simple, laughing, being connected, giving to each other something money can’t buy. You probably felt like you belonged.

One of the main complaints of people today is that they don’t have the money or time to connect. In part this is the truth. When your living below the poverty line you miss out on activities your friends might undertake like holidays or even day outings. Every event has to be carefully planned around a budget. I get that,  and I understand that but not all belonging Is expensive. Talking to your lonely neighbour over the fence to joining a group at the community centre are all ways of finding new tribes. It may be that we don’t fit into every tribe we come in contact with and that’s ok, no one asked you too.

For those of us that say we don’t have the time (myself included) we do have the time, we have the same time we had years ago, it’s just that we are choosing to spend more hours alone. I also get this I like my own company, but I also know it’s good for me to get out and connect with people, people, to share a common interest with people. We are spending more and more time alone behind our computers binge watching the next series of Dexter. We are seduced into feeling comfortable behind our four walls and shutting out people for fear they will disrupt our routines. If we spend so much time alone with just us and our laptops, how do we form our identity? Our identities are formed by others whether we like that idea or not. Hugh put it best when he says ‘ ‘We are all writing each other’s stories’

What’s stopping us then from engaging face to face with our communities, families and friends besides self obsession?

Mostly it comes down to our fear of vulnerability and rejection. What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t like them?  Being vulnerable is the most difficult thing for a human being to do, because it reduces us to mere beings without armour. How hard is it to ask for help, extremely hard for some of us, probably one of the hardest things we can do, because for some strange reason we have made it not ok to connect and to be vulnerable. There are some things however working against us like the mass media and commercialism reinforcing this idea of self obsession=happiness. The world does not revolve around us, sorry to break it to you but you’re so much more than that.

Public spaces don’t always allow for communities to get together and feel safe. Public spaces should always try and reflect what the communities needs are and cater for them. If a community wants a swimming pool for the young people instead of a modern take on the traditional Christmas tree in the towns square then this should be respected. Libraries should reflect what the users want and need. Community spaces like Libraries and online centres can be perfect hubs for collaboration and connection if done with respect to the people who use it. Every community needs spaces where incidental occurrences of connection can happen, the café is like the modern hub where people stop and chat. One of the best things to happen to coffee shops is the communal table almost forcing people to sit and talk to one another while waiting for their hit of caffeine, again myself included. Dog walking parks are another hub for connection watch dog people talk about their dog to other dog owner you see them instantly bond, even if it’s a staffy owner and a poodle owner, it doesn’t matter because they are dog owners  above all else, they are in a tribe.

What can we do then to make belonging important?

The easy thing to do is to say stop acting from a place of fear. If we acted from a place of compassion and welcomed people into our clubs, communities, nations and lives willingly, then we are not acting from a place of fear. However I know all too well that this is easier said than done; especially in a world where fear is marketed and sold to us on a daily basis. Fear has become a commodity used by politicians and companies to sell us the idea that if we are fearful there is no need to worry as they have the solutions for us. We are fed the bad news every hour anywhere, anyhow. In fact we can’t escape bad news filtering into our lives, believe me I have tried. Despite our fear we have to be brave enough to operate with the idea that most people are good people, and most people just like us want to belong.

We can question commercialism and the media’s stories about success and happiness. I don’t fit the boxes presented to me on TV about what a 40 something professional woman should be like. I know it’s hard not to compare, ourselves especially as a woman, but my success and happiness doesn’t rely on what the media are telling me it should. With some questioning and a strong will, I like to think I came up with my own version of a meaningful and successful life. This doesn’t involve copious amounts of friends, drugs, money, promotions or designer bags, it involves a handful of people in my inner tribe and belonging to other outer tribes that ultimately mean I’m part of a community with similar values and have a strong sense of self (most of the time).

Do you remember that great campaign a few years back about the importance of belonging to healthy communities? NO! Well me either because it didn’t exist. I’m 42 and I can’t remember ever seeing a campaign about healthy communities and belonging to them. I can remember plenty on the problems we have from drugs to terrorism but none on the importance of connection, belonging or giving back.

The Government could invest better where belonging to our communities is the only outcome. Balance some of that Government spending so that every community has a good ratio of Community Development workers per citizens. The trouble is most people don’t know what their local community development worker is or does. What if the Government paid each employer an extra weeks leave to allow people to simply volunteer in their communities to give back. Imagine the impact for communities, for the Country, for our health, for economics and for human beings.

We as people, could also improve on taking care of each other. While the RU OK campaign has been a great start we now need to actually live what we say. If we know a family member is struggling go and see them, if we know a friend hasn’t left the house in 5 days take them out, create some action from asking the question R U OK, don’t just retweet it.

We don’t need more control measures, more laws, lawyers, restrictions, curfews or security cameras (ironic name for a camera). We need to take stock of ourselves and our fears. Take a walk next door and introduce ourselves to our neighbours, they don’t have to be your best mate but they are your neighbour and you share something in common, if only your street.

We need more companies to get back to hosting family picnics at the end of the year for their hard-working employees and their families or friends. We need those wealthy companies to invest in healthy communities. We need leaders in the business community to stand up and do this.

Be aware though if you go out looking for that fantasy place of belonging it doesn’t exist. Trust me when I was 11 I thought I would track down the Brady Bunch to see if they would adopt me. The only way you will find belonging is by doing something about it, sacrificing something for someone else and being accepted by others. In the words of Hugh Mackay “It’s not where you live it’s how you live’

Be careful also of your beliefs. If you’re holding onto them so tightly that they are isolating you from belonging, then question this. Beliefs change, values don’t. Trust me on this one, I believed very strongly for sometime in the 90’s that I was going to marry one of the New kids on The Block Boys and I refused to listen to anything else. It’s safe to say I now listen to other music and see other superstars. If you’re a devout Christian and you refuse to have anything to do with anyone in the LGBTI Community, then you’re missing out.

Find your tribe, the tribe that helps you be the best person you can be in this world, then expand that tribe to include others,  and try not to act on fear all the time. We all need to feel like we belong, more now than ever before. It might be inside a hug of someone’s arms, in a friendship circle, in the bush, in a shed with your old man, at the footy with mates, in your band or at the local coffee shop. It doesn’t matter where, just as long as you and your tribe leave this world in better shape than you found it.

Belonging takes effort from all parties it is a collective effort and a voluntary endeavour, working together for something bigger than ourselves and much bigger than a Kim Kardashian.  So go on then find your tribe. 

Michael Leunig 6/6/98 Life is but a leap into a bucket
Michael Leunig
6/6/98
Life is but a leap into a bucket

Source Michael Leunig – http://www.leunig.com.au/works/cartoons

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