The Frustration With Not Quite Fitting In
Racism. Inequality. Abandonment.
In recent times, much has been said at grassroot and global levels about the real struggles that all lead to a deeply felt experience of unbelonging.
Rather than add another voice to an already highly crowded but important conversation, I want to speak to a group of us who may be living a slightly nuanced and different experience. Those who at times can feel welcomed in a community or organisation and yet still feel there are parts of us that aren’t embraced.
In other words, feeling caught between belonging and unbelonging.
Two reasons for the tension
Digger a bit deeper, I discovered a couple of reasons for this tension I continually experience.
Firstly, my angst is not primarily fuelled by a lack of acceptance from a community (though I have experienced the impacts of racism multiple times) but more from a split that exists between my identity and perception: I am simply not seen in the way I want to be seen.
Examples include, not being able to speak Chinese as an ethnically-Asian person in a predominantly Chinese community, not feeling like I could bring the "un-churchy" sides of myself into church (eg love for 90s rap & RnB, my corporate ambitions) and needing to do things to fit into company life but feeling like the "company man" persona wasn't one I could completely adopt.
Secondly, I found my sense of belonging and unbelonging is influenced by the expectations I've brought to the communities I'm a part of.
For most of my life, I held some idealistic view that there is a perfect community/place/people somewhere out there and when I find it, I will feel I fully belong. What is actually happening to me over and over again may be the frustration and stress caused by my unmet expectations of not reaching some unattainable goal - that is finding a perfect community that gives me everything I need through all stages, peaks and valleys of my life.
So behind the tension of belonging and unbelonging, I now in hindsight see the duo of unmet expectations. Unmet expectations of the way I wanted to be seen and unmet expectations of the role I thought the community ought to play in my life.
Estonian-Canadian filmmaker and activist Kalle Nasn said “The most powerful narcotic in the world is the promise of belonging” and I’ve come to believe there is some truth in the sentiment.
Maybe we were never meant to feel like we fully belonged.
What if we were always meant to live in this tension of both belonging and unbelonging? Having citizenship with one country yet having ties to another. Having respect for our ethnic heritage yet wanting to express the outworking of the culture in the current context. Living in the imperfections of communities on earth while experiencing glimpses of a spiritual reality and hoping for a better future. Insert your own example.
Jesus Christ prayed for his followers to learn to “be in the world but not of it” and St Paul offered the perspective of living our lives as “sojourners”, “foreigners”, even “aliens”. They were onto something thousands of years ago and I think I’m just starting to catch on to the depth of what they said.
So what would happen if we shifted our perspective? What if instead of 100% belonging as a goal we aimed to achieve, we saw the tension of belonging and unbelonging as a gift we receive?
The Gifts of Unbelonging
Firstly, the tension of unbelonging gifts us with compassion for the outsider. We know what it’s like to feel out of place, unwelcomed and unseen and those uncomfortable experiences may redemptively fuel us to become those who offer a place of welcome to others. Eyes of compassion are needed to pierce through a culture of cliques.
The tension of unbelonging also gifts us with a growing capacity and capability to hold space for diverse thinking and different approaches to living. The experienced blessings of belonging can include safety, ease and encouragement. However the very things that make these blessings possible eg shared interests, values, etc, could also serve as a curse if it leads to tribalism and an echo chamber of sorts where critical thinking and healthy questioning is abandoned. So when I feel the discomfort of not feeling I fully belong among certain communities, rather than “stereotype and judge them as somehow “less than” or “backward” in my mind, I can choose instead to better understand their story and motivations and learn something new that may help me to grow as a human being.
So how do we practically live well in the tension of both belonging and unbelonging? Apart from shifting our perspective so we see it as a gift, we would do well to shift our expectations of others.
Don’t expect others to fully “get you” but help them understand you better. Don’t put on an expectation that individuals and communities are to fully get you. It’s actually unfair to others. I still don’t fully get myself and am on a lifelong self discovery process in many ways. And the other thing is I as a human being, am also continually changing - mindset, spirit, physically, emotionally etc. Having said that, voicing my needs and wants to help those I’m connected with is important. To be clear is to be kind.
To belong or not to belong? Let’s embrace the gift of living in the tension of both.
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