Human Need to Belong

I’ve recently become acquainted with the poetry of Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Her work is deeply moving and liminal. She is helping me look at this uncertain world in a new way.

Lately her poem Belonging has been a particular balm for my soul. I keep returning to it and each time it teaches me something new about connection and isolation. This pondering led me to do some research.

I think we can all point to times in our lives when we felt a sense of belonging… and times when we felt out of place, insecure, alone. It really is interesting that, at times, we can find ourselves surrounded by a whole sea of other people and still feel alone. As Trommer describes it:

And if it’s true we are alone,
we are alone together,
the way blades of grass
are alone, but exist as a field.

Jeanine Steward of the Neuroleadership Institute (as quoted by Tracy Brower in the Forbes article Missing Your People) explains, “Being surrounded by other human beings doesn’t guarantee a sense of belonging. Belonging actually has to do with identification as a member of a group and the higher-quality interactions which come from that. It’s the interactions over time which are supportive of us as full, authentic human beings.” Belonging is more than being in proximity to other people. Belonging requires a sense of connection, shared purpose, an identity.

The pandemic, of course, wreaked havoc on our sense of belonging. People no longer had those places to go – work, school, church, community meals, the gym – where they felt they belonged. For those who were able to recreate a sense of connection in creative ways – through video chat and watch parties and Zoom holidays – the impact of the isolation was lessened, but still there. For those who didn’t have the technology or resources to find new ways to connect, the impact was devastating and is still being felt.

 As Tracy Brower wrote, “Belonging is a fundamental part of being human: We need people and this need is hardwired into our brains. A recent MIT study found we crave interactions in the same region of our brains where we crave food, and another study showed we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain where we experience physical pain.”

As humans, we find belonging in many different ways. In our communities, in our faith gatherings, in our families, at our work, through the clubs and organizations where we spend our time. Belonging meets an emotional and biological (and even a spiritual) need within us and we notice when it is lacking. That’s not to say that every group we belong to is healthy for us. Perhaps a group no longer fosters within us a sense of curiosity or creativity. Perhaps a group requires us to have to try too hard to fit in. Perhaps a group cuts us off from a sense of joy in our life. Sometimes we need to leave a group in order to find where we truly belong.  Sometimes we need to be alone for a while to truly appreciate that sense of belonging.

True belonging isn’t territorial or defensive. True belonging invites whole people to come together with other whole people who may share different opinions or viewpoints or perspectives but want the best for each other. True belonging doesn’t require uniformity but welcomes diversity. That’s how people from different life experiences can come together over their shared interest in hiking or sewing or model railroading or bird watching and find a sense of belonging.  By being in community with diverse others, we learn more about the world. Belonging allows us to play out radical acceptance on a small scale – welcoming the stranger, hearing a new idea, having our biases challenged, looking at the world through different eyes. Again for Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer’s Belonging:

Sometimes I feel it,
the green fuse that ignites us,
the wild thrum that unites us,
an inner hum that reminds us
of our shared humanity.

I wonder, where you have found a sense of belonging? Where are your people and how did you find them? How has recognizing your belonging changed you? When have you felt the green fuse that ignites us?