Do you feel like you belong; in your family, your community, the world? If you’re like me, then you likely have mixed feelings about belonging. On the one hand, some of the most precious moments in life are when we feel a sense of connection and belonging. On the other hand, belonging gets a little too close to conformity. Maybe you relate to this quote from romance author Elizabeth Lowell,
Some of us aren’t meant to belong. Some of us have to turn the world upside down and shake the hell out of it until we make our own place in it.
Belonging is especially challenging for free thinkers. Membership, sign ups, pledges of anything, these things turn us off and make us run for the hills. Right? Groucho Marx once sent a telegram to the exclusive Friar’s Club in Hollywood: “Please accept my resignation” he said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Woody Allen took up the same joke in the opening scene of Annie Hall, relating the joke to relationships. I wouldn’t want to be in relationship with anyone who would be willing to be in relationship with me.
We prefer loose associations. We prefer to move in and out of groups at will and we don’t like feeling defined or branded. Belonging often feels like a box that we need to burst out of. Many of us are neither hunters nor gatherers, and certainly not joiners. As you can imagine, this creates many challenges for organizing free thinkers. It’s like pushing frogs in a wheelbarrow.
The good news is that there’s a way to get the best of both worlds, a win/win of belonging and independence. You can enjoy the precious moments of belonging without giving up any of your autonomy; just as in a relationship you can enjoy both aloneness and togetherness.
The answer is in the glue. What makes people and groups stick? If you expect conformity, or group think, to be the glue, free thinkers like me will run for their lives. Take for example this fun story about church membership.
Three couples were seeking membership in a church. The pastor explained his rule that all new members must go three weeks without being intimate. Three weeks went by and the first couple came back to visit with the pastor. The pastor said, “So how did it go?” “It was tough, but we made it,” said the first couple. “Welcome to our church,” said the pastor.
The second couple came back for a meeting and the pastor asked them the same question. Their reply was the same as the first couple’s and the pastor welcomed them into the church.
The third couple came for their interview and the pastor asked them the same question. The husband replied, “We were doing pretty well until yesterday when my wife bent over to pick up a book. My passions ran riot and, well, let’s just say I just couldn’t contain myself.” The pastor interrupted him, “I’m sorry, but you’re not welcome in our church.”
“That’s okay,” said the couple, “We’re definitely moving. We’re not welcome at the local library either.”
That sure would set librarian tongues wagging during coffee break. But seriously, this is part of what makes free thinkers flee from churches. What you do in your bedroom is no one’s business just as what you believe is no one’s business. But affirming your right to believe and live in a way that’s authentic for you IS part of the glue. In other words, the beliefs and the lifestyle aren’t the glue. It’s the freedom to be yourself and the commitment to stand up for this freedom which is the glue. Courageous honesty, open minded acceptance, authenticity and consistent integrity are all part of the glue that makes free thinkers stick together.
Free thinkers can enjoy having different beliefs and diverse lifestyles, and encourage each person to be all they can be rather than expecting them to conform to what you need them to be or what the group expects them to be.
This is a radically different way of thinking about belonging. I can belong in a diverse group if the group genuinely enjoys diversity and doesn’t need me to conform to their standards.
And belonging is important, even for free thinkers. Alone you are strong. In relationship you are even stronger. Left completely alone, any of us would self destruct. Left alone with our thoughts, we get trapped in our own freedom, lost in angst. Relationships, groups and communities help us to escape from our own thoughts just for long enough to see them objectively. Relationships and groups help us to see new and sometimes broader perspectives, and learn from other peoples’ experiences.
Maybe this is part of what John Donne meant when he said, “No man is an island” because left alone for long enough we will eventually drown in the oceanic possibilities of self reflection, or to use another phrase I like the “amorphous threat of the infinite.” I’m going to write more about this next week, but in short I believe that it means that we need the self corrective influence of others on our worldview, just as we need the company of others to build a vision that addresses the scope of the challenges of life.
In short, community helps us to get out of our own way and share the responsibility for creating the sort of world we want to live in and leave for the next generation. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
So my encouragement is to find people and groups you can belong to without having to give up your personal autonomy.
To belong is to be long on commitment and short on conformity.
To belong is to be long on acceptance and short on judgment.
To belong is to be long on active participation and short on a passive sense of entitlement.
To belong is to be long on free thought and short on group think.
To belong is to be long on listening and short on telling.
To belong is to be long on personal responsibility and short on blame.
To belong is to be long on honesty and short on pretense.
I could go on, but to do so would be to be long on words and I’ve said enough. Belong. Be with those who inspire you. Be one who inspires others. You’re not an island. We need you and you need others!