The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Longing for Belonging

We are born with the need to belong, and there is no age or stage of life in which we are free from that basic need. In its extremes we see it all the way from the infant who clings to his mother to the obnoxious and emotionally needy adult who tries to push his way into every social setting and every conversation. Because the need to belong is universal, one of the most serious and painful punishments in prison is "solitary confinement".

In his book, The Identity Society, William Glasser states that "the need for involvement has been built into our nervous systems for the last half-million years. We always need involvement, and we feel pain when we have none. The pain warns us to seek involvement with others." There are myriad ways in which involvement may happen. The extrovert, the one who gets energy from crowds, will be overtly involved, perhaps with whole multitudes. The introvert, the one who is drained by crowds, may find a place on the side-lines, quietly engaged with others.

There are those who substitute self-involvement for involvement with others, thereby masking that innate need to belong, to feel connected to others. But self-involvement is an inadequate alternative. We cannot fool our nervous systems for long. We soon become dissatisfied and the pain of our emptiness and non-belonging returns.

Alienation and estrangement are unnatural and therefore painful conditions for humans. There is both a fact and feeling of belonging, because no matter how much or to what we belong, unless we have a feeling of belonging, we do not actually belong. We all know people, in fact, we may be people, who belong to every social club in town, and who attend a half-dozen committee meetings each week, but who still feel lonely and alienated. These are people who are searching for what it seems that they already have. You can belong and still fail to have a sense of belonging.

One of the tragedies of life is that there are so many who feel unwanted, unneeded, unloved and unappreciated. People do unhappy and harmful things to others and to themselves because of loneliness, alienation, and a pervading feeling of not belonging. Those who do not feel they belong often compensate by trying to possess both people and things, but the possession of people and things is spiritually dangerous and ultimately counterproductive. Filling the void in life with material things is an exercise in futility, and trying to possess -- own -- control people will ultimately destroy any relationship.

Happiness does not consist of the abundance of things or people we possess.. There is hardly a way you can experience a warm and satisfying sense of belonging to something or someone you own. Our deepest need is not to possess but to be accepted and acknowledged. In the final analysis, our stature is not measured by what belongs to us, but by that to which we belong.

A number of years ago Diana Barrymore wrote an autobiography entitled, Too Much Too Soon. After reading this catalogue of human tragedy, it seemed that the book should have been entitled, Too Little Too Late. This grim autobiography is a classic example of the kind of emotional and spiritual decay that takes place when there is no sense of belonging. Early in the book the author gives the key to her unhappy life. She said: "I didn't have love. I never belonged".

There are many forms of exclusion, many ways we may feel shut out. We may be excluded from certain economic groups because we are too poor, or excluded by the poor because we are wealthy, or by our peers who are in competition with us. We may be excluded by a different generation, younger or older, who do not trust or understand us, or who feel we do not understand them. Sometimes we are excluded from parts of ourselves because of interpersonal compartmentalization, or because we have closed the door on some wounded area of life that we do not intend to open for fear of being hurt again.

The secret to having and maintaining a sense of acceptance and belonging that is genuine and lasting is to avoid pretension. However, when you do not pretend to be that which you are not, you run the risk of being accepted for who you are, warts and all. Nothing is more tempting or exhausting than seeking acceptance by pretension. It takes intentional effort, self acceptance and constant practice to consistently present yourself as who you really are, but it is worth the effort.

I am not through here. Stay tuned in next week.