C.S. Lewis once commented that belonging to a group is the strongest emotional drive a human possesses. I suppose social media is just the latest arena, though I think most people have some pretty visceral memories of the popular crowd in middle school. I haven’t thought about being popular in decades but it ranked among my top concerns throughout adolescence. I have since discovered that many never grow out of this phase.
And for good reason. A sense of belonging is crucial to physical and mental health. Isolation is so stressful that it has now become a fully recognized mental illness all on its own in the latest iteration of the DSM. The name of this new malady? Loneliness.
Yet for Christians, a curious tension exists. We are family and yet we are outsiders in a world under siege. Many Christians throughout the world can expect persecution as a matter of course. And to be persecuted is to be rejected on the deepest level possible; a spiritual one.
In my own life, I have discovered that creating a sense of belonging does not entail attaching myself to a group. Ironically, the real work of recreating a sense of belonging begins alone. After all, to be human is to embrace conflicting realities at all times. On the one hand, we are alone. Our thoughts and feelings play out on a stage with only our self as the audience. And yet, here we are with seven and a half billion others, all with their own internal stages playing out similar dramas.
I find that what isolates me is the internalization of various kinds of perceptions. How I see myself and how I perceive others drastically affects my ability to interact in a healthy way within relationships. In fact, my view of myself underpins every relational interaction and paves the way to genuine intimacy. Or instead, my view reinforces a sense of isolation.
While many obstacles exist to creating that sense of belonging, these are the primary ones I have struggled with or have seen others struggle with. These inner lies, when consented to, destroy our ability to trust others or even ourselves within a relationship. They create interference with our ability to receive the love we crave.
- My emotions are dangerous; not only to myself but to others.
For years, I was certain that if I were to express my emotions honestly to others, I might literally harm them. My emotions were either frightening monsters that could destroy others, or they were terrible burdens I had no right inflicting on people. My only recourse was to be shut down, which is, of course, a self-imposed isolation.
Once I learned to face my fear and express my emotions, I discovered that it was mostly just a matter of choosing my audience. I took on myself the responsibility of everyone’s reactions around me. In truth, my emotion and how I express it is my responsibility. If I express my displeasure or need in a respectful and loving way, how others respond is purely their responsibility. And in expressing myself, I make myself knowable and accessible to those who care about me.
- I am a burden.
To those of us who for whatever reason, harbor a sense of being unwanted, the default position is to become a living apology. The primary goal of our lives is to avoid being an inconvenience. We over-serve, we over-compensate, and we under-share our hearts. We must reciprocate any gift or service given to us to maintain an imaginary equality. Ensuring that we do not owe anyone is paramount because to risk burdening anyone is to risk facing our own unworthiness.
I think this is such a painful truth for so many. There is no true giving in this mindset, only exchange because to be a burden is to be an unwanted object, a drag on someone else. But love renders service a joy. To enter into a loving relationship of any kind is to bear each other’s burdens freely as much as it is appreciating the uniqueness of the other individual.
- I am damaged.
Trauma is the great destroyer of belonging. Whether at the hands of another or by circumstance, to be hurt in deep ways feels lonely. We mistakenly believe that we have suffered more than others, or that what has happened to us is a result of some terrible truth about us that will one day be exposed to all and sundry.
Why it is that tragedy affects us this way, I do not know. What I do know is that shame results from blurring our individual identities with what has happened to us as individuals. Once I saw myself as Alice, a person who has experienced domestic violence, I was able to leave behind the identity of victimhood. I am not a bucket full of trauma, but a person who has experienced trauma. And once this separation is made, we discover a great many others have experiences similar to ours. What served to alienate is redeemed in the sharing of our stories.
- I can’t trust anyone.
Trust is necessary to emotional intimacy. Sometimes the circumstances of our lives interfere with the most basic foundations of trust that we should learn as children. Ironically, the only way to heal those foundations is to find trustworthy people and have long-term secure relationships with them. We must do the thing we cannot do.
Our ability to bond is generally a frontal lobe development we get from our mothers. That kind of brain development does not happen alone but only in relationship. Finding a long-term counselor and learning to trust them is one way out of this destructive and lonely loop. But I have often found that God will take the lonely and place them in families where they can get this crucial attention.
- My need is too great.
Our minds and emotions are a roller-coaster that we must learn to ride in order to have a life worth living. The most common mistake we make is mistaking the two for each other. Here is how this works. An emotion comes in like a flood and our minds, whose job it is to create connections between things, pops out a thought in response. The two together seem inseparable.
So when loneliness or despair surges in with the daily tide of our emotions, we jump to conclusions. We feel lonely and the thought, “Nobody loves me” pops into our heads. It seems logical, therefore we swallow the idea that no one loves us. The thought that became an accepted lie for me was that no one could ever love me enough to fill me up. As I began to examine this, I discovered that while I sometimes felt very alone, my beliefs about my loneliness caused more pain than my actual loneliness!
I believe that when Jesus says that he who has, more will be given, this can be applied to our sense of belonging. When we clear out the lies and obstacles to relationship, we become more accessible to others as well as to ourselves. We even make ourselves more accessible to the Lover of our souls who tells us we are never alone.
This was such a helpful book to me at one time in my life…