The Search for Belonging
About three years ago, I sat in a circle with a group of about twenty people, the majority of whom I had never before met. Most were much wealthier, much more accomplished professionally, more refined in their personality. At the outset it seemed apparent that our common bond was our involvement in the mission endeavour that had brought us together. We were different people, from different parts of our country, different backgrounds, with different lifestyles and different ambitions. In the place we now found ourselves we were separated from what had come to define us, yet we were uniting in something new. At least that’s the way it started.
It’s seems almost impossible to consider a way to define our current social existence. Our neighbourhoods, communities, cities, regions and countries influence our identities. Our experiences within these contexts shape each of us uniquely. Our sense of belonging is often connected to the amount of money we have or we contend we have. The esteem of many is derived from responses and interactions that transcend physical locations, through the social media via the internet. There is no doubt that we are a people who long to belong to others. Yet it seems, that our attempts have left us wanting, lacking and therefore the search for understanding continues.
This idea of searching for a sense of belonging, is what Charles Taylor is addressing in his book, Modern Social Imaginaries, when he says (p.23):
“I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”
Our expectation in that we belong together; but our frustration is often in finding the way in which that togetherness happens. Taylor identifies three main areas that modernity has sought to provide this sense of belonging: “the economy, the public sphere, and the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule.” (p.69) There is no dispute with this basic breakdown. There is also no dispute with the manner in which Taylor demonstrates that throughout the unfolding of modernity our sense of identity and belonging have failed to be met by any of these. It is as though we have come to outwardly accept the parameters of the three spheres, while continuing to look for or “imagine” a more complete scenario: “The very use of a term linked to imagination invites this question; what we imagine can be something new, constructive, opening new possibilities, or it can be purely fictitious, perhaps dangerously false. “(p.184)
Whether it has been through shared activity, artistic expression or the simplicity of a social media post, we have always been people who look for ways to belong to others. However, the search continues, despite whatever other kinds of progress can be measured. The confusion of this intertwined duality is not lost on Taylor: “I define them here as ideal types, recognizing that in real historical developments they often are combined and sometimes are difficult to disentangle.”(p.109) The unquestioned reality of Taylor’s statements makes it all the more important to recognize the ever-present, unseen reality of the social imaginary (p.115). We long for a way to belong, but we’re unclear how it can happen, because it seems that we have been searching fruitlessly for so long.
That first night that I sat with the group of leaders, our initial assumptions of what brought us meaning and belonging were radically changed. Yes, we were brought together by a common mission interest, but that’s not what connected us:
We each took turns sharing about how we came be involved in this mission. As each one shared, it became clear that all of us shared a desire to belong, an identity that had, until this point, not been attained. Each shared a story of being broken, or suffering or boredom with their “normal” life and even with their religious routines. Sure, we could all readily identify with the Cross of Christ, but despite even that commonality, there was a sense that there was something missing. That something was an active part of what we had been, in Taylor’s words, “imagining”. What our social status, nor our profession, nor our bank accounts, nor our political or religious practice could provide, we did discover. Systems, order and theories hadn’t held us together separately, and they couldn’t hold us together now. Through the freedom to share our individual experiences of brokenness, disappointment and suffering we all came to recognize the evidence of the power of Christ. In sharing our individual weaknesses, together we were ushered into the common strength of our bond of sharing in Christ’s sufferings as we served those in need. For many people, it would be the first time sharing their experience and it lifted the veil on their longing for a community greater than the empty promises of the “normal” static and ritualistic ways.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
The reminder to me from this experience is that we all desire a sense of belonging. As Charles Taylor correctly asserts we have tried hard in the pages of our mind to create ways to make social belonging happen. In our futility of effort or in the frustration that comes from suffering, our imaginations have not given up hope. The reminder from our God is that through the Cross of suffering, the power of God gives “us” a whole new definition, one that satisfies our deepest soul’s yearning.
The question that came from that experience still remains: recognizing how significant this revelation about the true source of belonging, how do we transform our regular, daily communities with what we’ve learned?
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