Every life is in many days, day after day.
We walk through ourselves,
meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men,
wives, widows, brothers-in-law.
But always meeting ourselves.
--James Joyce, 1882-1941
What is belonging?
Well, according to most dictionaries, it’s a verb.
Fitting in a specified place or environment.
Being bound to a person, place, or club by ties of affection, dependence, allegiance, or membership
Having the right personal or social qualities to be a member of a particular group.
My brand of belonging is a noun.
A way of life.
In point of fact, Abraham Maslow, one of the founding fathers of the humanistic psychology movement, considered belonging a human necessity, ranking it just below safety in his “Hierarchy of Needs.”
Sometimes, a disrupted sense of belonging can actually feel un-safe.
As a 12-year old, I moved from a tiny hamlet in Western Massachusetts to a mill city in Virginia that had been the last capital of the Confederacy. My parents’ ill-advised strategy for breaking the news to me and my brothers about our relocation was to wait until the last minute. For an acutely sensitive adolescent with a decidedly Yankee identity, it was an abrupt and terrifying transition--and one to which I reacted badly.
My well-meaning parents’ solution to my anxiety and acting out was to send me to a succession of different schools in the hopes that if I just fell in with the right set, I would settle down. Instead, the “Groundhog Day” of being the new kid again and again set in motion a practically pathological desire to fit in that drove my decisions for the next three decades--while driving me further and further from "me."
Without even realizing it, I became shrewd, calculating and manipulative. I watched your facial expressions and your body language. I noted the kind of clothes you wore, what TV shows you liked, and what your favorite bands were. I practically failed at algebra but I had a knack for simple math: I observed what you liked, and I became it
I became such an expert at figuring out what people wanted and how to give it to them, it became the basis for an award-winning 25-year career. As a P.R. professional, my job was to make companies look good and since I had become a spin doctor in my teens, I was a natural.
However, all this mind-reading took a heavy toll. Incessantly evaluating how to measure up and what to play down required a constant examination of our differences. In order to assess what you wanted, I became a master of critical analysis.
That comparing became habitual. Like the Olympic judges who rate figure skating champions with numbered signs, I was always on the lookout for how and where I was better or worse than you and in what degrees. I judged you and I judged me and eventually, everyone was coming up short all the time.
I was 48 years old before I realized that a life and livelihood based on constantly comparing is very alienating and lonely. In a moment of grace, I had a glimpse of an alternative, a glimmer of a different me.
As my mother was dying, I spent my visits “interviewing” her, running my digital tape recorder as I asked her many of the things I had never felt I could before. Maybe playing reporter made me feel more detached and safer at a very vulnerable time in our lives. Or perhaps I simply wanted to seize the opportunity to wring out and soak up every drop of what mattered to her while I could, and record it for posterity.
On one occasion, with great gusto, she described how when I was an 8-year old, at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, my father would leave his upstairs office in our home, and come down to the first floor front hall. My mother would meet him there, and they would stand at the window together and look out, waiting.
“And then there you would be, coming home from Brownies with the two Mancini sisters,” Mom would say with relish. “They would have their hands in their pockets and heads down and you would be in between them, in your Brownie uniform, leaping and prancing around, hands waving in the air. Pure enthusiasm, pure exuberance.”
Abruptly excusing myself, I went out to my car in the parking lot and wept. But my tears were both a requiem and a relief, for I understood immediately that my mother’s memory meant there was hope. Buried under layers of cynicism, there was a Brownie spirit I could and would resurrect.
Soon after, I walked away from a 25-year career and embarked on the adventure of re-connecting with my happy-go-lucky 8-year old self. While I knew that she had been MIA for close to four decades, I had no idea that journey would turn into an epic quest, spanning more than 30 countries over seven years.
Ironically, it was through being a stranger in a strange land that I went from feeling like a perennial outsider to knowing a greater sense of belonging, trust and acceptance. As I visited far-flung places, the people I met opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the world, while also reminding me of the universal nature of the human condition.
I began to see how someone from the jungle dealt with an ill parent, how someone from an island tried not to be so hard on himself, how someone from the desert discerned what his calling was, how someone from the fjords found acceptance, how someone from the mountains relied on his faith in a time of self-doubt.
I began to be aware of other people’s kindnesses — as well as their pain. I began to appreciate our similarities and learn from our differences. I began to feel gratitude for the wisdom of the “teachers” who crossed my path and I started to believe that I too had something meaningful to offer others.
I began to discover the magical formula for achieving both authenticity and belonging. This new empowering philosophy was based on identifying with others instead of comparing myself to them.
Among strangers, I came home to myself. In remote regions of the world, I learned how to belong.
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