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To Belong, A Human Desire and Emotion

If we asked people, where do you feel a sense of belonging?  We might hear…

  • my church
  • my family
  • my neighborhood
  • my school
  • my soccer team
  • my gang

If we asked a random group of people, what does “belonging” mean to you?  What goes into creating a feeling of belonging?  We will most likely hear a wide-ranging cacophony of responses, some of which might be…

  • being understood by my peers
  • being liked by people
  • feeling like I am part of the group
  • feeling comfortable in the setting
  • fitting in with the crowd
  • knowing people care

Our need to belong is a human emotion reflecting our desire to fit in with groups and to be accepted by their members. The emotional connection we crave is an integral part of our humanness. While we can function in an “alone” state, we find meaning in relationship to others, particularly people and groups that align to our center of gravity. Shibu Raman describes a sense of belonging this way.

Sense of belonging is the psychological feeling of belonging or connectedness to a social, spatial, cultural, professional, or other type of group or a community. Shared beliefs or ideals, a supportive environment, self-esteem, and opportunities for interaction can influence the development of sense of belonging in an individual.

Raman S. (2014) Sense of Belonging. In: Michalos A.C. (eds) Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-0753-5_2646

Implied in a sense of belonging is the feeling of security, support, and affirmation. As we explore belonging’s deeper meaning we realize it is a complex feeling that comes from our need for human connection.

The poet, David Whyte, wrote a book, The House of Belonging. Here is a link to the central poem in this wonderful book that explores the human desire to belong. Whyte writes (a short excerpt)…

 I thought
 this is the good day
 you could
 meet your love,

this is the gray day
 someone close
 to you could die.

This is the day
 you realize
 how easily the thread
 is broken
 between this world
 and the next

He reveals to us that belonging is about connections but the connections can be fragile or uncertain unless we nurture them with intentionality, inviting them into the “house of belonging” we build for ourselves. In conclusion, he writes…

the tawny
 close grained cedar
 burning round
 me like fire
 and all the angels of this housely
 heaven ascending
 through the first
 roof of light
 the sun has made.

This is the bright home
 in which I live,
 this is where
 I ask
 my friends
 to come,
 this is where I want
 to love all the things
 it has taken me so long
 to learn to love.

This is the temple
 of my adult aloneness
 and I belong
 to that aloneness
 as I belong to my life.

There is no house
 like the house of belonging.

Do we find ourselves at a time in history where attaining a sense of belonging is challenged by the isolation created by the pandemic and the separation and opposition created by social, religious, and political discord? We isolate ourselves into encampments, refusing to enter into civil dialogue with one another, instead, seeking to denigrate and divide. The challenge of our time is to overcome the isolation, deepen our sense of belonging, and heal the divisions we have created.

Parker Palmer, in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, explores his Five Habits of the Heart. The second habit of the heart is an appreciation of the other. We can learn from each other, especially if we challenge ourselves to explore colliding perspectives. We grow when we embrace and listen to the other, even if the other is not a member of the tribe we belong to. In the short video, Palmer says…

It is true that we are all in this together. It is equally true that we spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves—and that thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. The good news is that “us and them” does not need to mean “us versus them.”

A sense of belonging is built through desire and intentionality. We have to be willing to invest our efforts into engaging with others, seeking to understand others, and grappling with our tendency to demonize others. Karyn Hall, author and clinician, wrote a piece in Psychology Today, Creating a Sense of Belonging. She writes…

To build a sense of belonging requires active effort and practice. One way to work on increasing your sense of belonging is to look for ways you are similar with others instead of focusing on ways you are different. Someone is much older than you?

Looking for similarities instead of focusing on differences! Simple enough, right? Yet, we often struggle to find a common purpose and collaborate in spite of our differences. We have to invite others into our “house of belonging,” where we wrestle with our need for aloneness and our desire to belong. Wholeness and happiness come when we reconcile these desires and needs and find a true sense of belonging that sustains us. “There is no house like the house of belonging (David Whyte).”

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