"The thing I am most desperate to keep you from finding out about me is … I want to belong, but I don't know how."
I want to believe it wasn't always this way—that I wasn't always inept at the basic skill of belonging. But adults have a way of becoming calloused to truths we once knew well.
When I was 11, I noticed a patch of scratchy skin beginning to form on my upper arm. I tried to rub it off in the shower like flakes off a sunburn, but it persisted. It wasn't scaly by the time I went to the doctor for a biopsy. Like a snake, it had shed its scaly exterior and revealed a smooth, leathery patch that slithered beneath my freckles. Tests revealed it was the autoimmune disease scleroderma, a word from the Greek meaning "hard skin." Even if we treated it, it could kill me.
I relished the thought of having a life-threatening disease as if it validated the drama I experienced as an adolescent trying to make a home in my ever-changing skin. They were life threatening, too, those delicate social dances that taught us who and what to belong to. If we weren't careful, we would lose the suppleness of our youthful hearts, right along with our doughy cheeks and rounded bellies.
Middle-schoolers live close to the nerve of belonging. They can name its pain and pulses clearly. When popular research professor Brené Brown interviewed a bunch of eighth graders about their definition of the word, they offered this distinction: Fitting in means I have to be like you. Belonging means I get to be me. Did you catch that little word "get"? To "get" to be ourselves means that belonging is both a gift we receive and a pilgrimage we make. To be our authentic selves requires some getting to, some working out, some travelling toward as we discern the "me" we get to be. Learning to belong is lifetime work.
To be clear, we need help arriving as ourselves in this world. Belonging isn't just about being alone in a room with the door closed and the stereo on, with nothing but a Celine Dion song for company. Belonging is about discerning ourselves in the context of a community, a web of relationships both horizontal and vertical that gives us meaning and purpose and identity.
Brown describes her own definition of belonging as "the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us." For some people, this something larger could be participating in a home-brew club where you come out of your hopped-up broom closet once a month to swap science and stories. For others, this something larger goes beyond human community to belief in a spiritual community or a higher power as those in recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are keen on calling it. For Christians, we often expect to find the source of our belonging in the church, a microcosm of the living, breathing body of God on earth.
So it's all the more tragic when the church becomes the source not of our belonging but our disappointment, a microcosm of petty, human organisms. Nowadays I hear less about how the church is a petri dish for growing connection, and more about how its culture is preventing people from developing healthy relationships with God, themselves, and others.
Picture of a Millennial
Marcus Mumford, the 20-something front man of Mumford and Sons, admitted in Rolling Stone that despite having personal views about the person of Jesus, "I've kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity." He's not alone. Many of us strain to see how this kind of human community can resemble the holy communion Jesus offered when he said, "Take, eat; this is my body." It's no wonder that so many of us make up the growing population of religious "nones."