By Kathy Berken
To what or whom do you belong? Your church, family, organization, friends, workplace, community, country, God? Membership is a far cry from the gut feeling of belonging. The late Catholic spiritual writer John O’Donohue said we are born with a survival instinct to belong.
In his book “Eternal Echoes,” O’Donohue wrote, “Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.” We ache to be “embraced, seen, and loved” he said, and although we may have every material thing, “without a sense of belonging, it all seems empty and pointless.”
Our longing to belong is visceral but, sadly, many people feel empty, isolated and disconnected from the very people they live or work with and even from God. Is there anything we can do to change this or are we destined to feel alone forever?
Certainly, feelings of isolation are common but we can change them for the better. Many of us have happy memories of belonging to family, school, neighborhood, workplace, church and, yes, even God. Over the years, hurts, resentments, disagreements, disillusionment or just moving away eroded that connection, leaving us with a devastating sense of isolation. We spiral downward, retreat further, afraid that new connections will also disintegrate.
We may know intellectually that we still have membership in our family, work, friendships, church and God, but if we don’t feel it we are miserable. To begin to heal, I invite you to elicit any feeling of belonging you have with something in nature.
In “The Cosmic Dance,” native Iowan Sister Joyce Rupp, OSM, writes, “I know that somewhere there is a herdsman in the Sahara Desert who is also gazing at the stars of our common universe . . . there is a lamb in New Zealand romping in the sunlight that also bathes my skin . . . there is a cactus blooming in Mexico under the same sky as mine . . . all of us are drinking in the wind and living under the beauty of the heavens, [and] all of this is a dance of oneness amid the bounty of the skies and I am grateful.”
First, allow yourself to revel in the feeling you have of connection with an animal, forest, wide-open space, a lake or sunset. Pay close attention to that feeling and remember it. Now turn slowly to the people in your life with whom you feel estranged and listen to the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
Professor and author Brené Brown suggests we be honest with ourselves: “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” One key to creating a feeling of belonging lies in our willingness to accept our imperfect selves and take the next step.
Knowing that we alone control our feelings may be the most challenging but most helpful step. If I want to feel that I belong to my family, for example, I will dig deep to find one thing I have in common with any of them and nurture that one thing. The same goes with creating a sense of belonging to a church or to God. Next time you go to Mass, repeat to yourself the words that the eucharistic minister says to each person in the Communion line, “The body of Christ.” You may be surprised at how you feel afterwards as you notice each person as together you walk out of the church as the body of Christ.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)