Got a call yesterday from a friend who asked: What does it mean to belong, and what is belonging? Among the more important questions we can ask ourselves, given that belonging is what each of us longs for and sacrifices so much to find. I managed a few sentences on the phone but after hanging up decided to write out some thoughts in search of clarity.
There seem to be different kinds of belonging.
First, there’s biological belonging. This has to do with family relations. These relations are biologically based and irrevocable. Regardless of how good or bad the relationship is, a biological relationship can’t be revoked. I’m not sure if this makes it the least or the most interesting form of belonging because, as I’ll suggest in the end, the truest realizing of personal belonging is indeed belonging which is irrevocable and indissoluble.
Second, recreational belonging. This would be based on shared interests and abilities. You may belong to a chess club or a local choir. The terms of the belonging are your ability to perform the skill that defines the group. So here belonging is performance based. If you can’t do what defines the group, you don’t belong.
Third, there’s vocational belonging, not all that different from recreational belonging. You work for a company and so belong to the company or to this or that department within the company. The terms of the belonging are spelled out in your contract. This belonging is also performance based. Fail to abide by the terms of your contract and you fail to belong.
Then there are deeper more meaningful forms of belonging.
Fourth, marital belonging, a belonging which is, at its best, based on mutual love and respect and shared values and purposes. This belonging realizes itself far more deeply in us, and as us, than recreational or vocational belonging. The terms of this belonging are the love that unites the two who are married. In the end, however, where love and acceptance are conditional (as divorce makes painfully clear), marital belonging becomes performance based as well.
Fifth, there’s what we might call relational belonging. Two people develop an emotional or life bond that unites their hearts. It is based on mutual and unconditional love and respect. Here one belongs not to a team or a company or even a vow or contract of marriage, but to the other. Such belonging can certainly occur within marriage, but it needn’t require marriage, nor is is always present in marriage. This belonging is the heart and soul of true friendship. It was Aristotle, I think, who defined a friend as “another self,” a copy or separate version of one’s own soul. You see yourself in the other and they see themselves in you. Each values and loves and cherishes the life of the other unconditionally. Friendship, when it realizes its deepest potential, is the truest form of relational belonging. Its terms are unconditional love.
Now for the controversial part. Human beings all fail to love others in some measure. No human being loves (or even can love) another as truly and deeply as that person deserves and needs to be loved. I’m going to suggest in a moment that only God can love us in this unfailing and fullest sense. But when it comes to belonging as we know and experience it among ourselves, we are always in state of some failure. However truly one may realize the love and value of another, that other person’s value will always exceed whatever one has done to affirm and celebrate it. Belonging – as far as we can know it among ourselves – is always partial and broken, however deeply we may feel it at the time. There always remains a deferral of desire, value, and longing which anticipates the more, the truer, the final, etc. This is because human desire, like human value, is immeasurable and limitless, and can rest finally only in an immeasurable and limitless object. This, it seems to me, is why all forms of belonging mentioned thus far (except biological belonging) are performance based and tend to dissolution under the pressure of human weakness and failure.
Finally, ontological belonging. All the forms of belonging described here, with the exception of biological belonging, are approximations of the truest belonging imaginable, ontological belonging, the belonging which is ‘Being’ itself. For me as a Christian this is the belonging which is God in the fullness of his own being, in whom immeasurable and limitless value, on the one hand, and existence, on the other, are one and the same, suffering no deferral of desire or its satisfaction. Perhaps this trinitarian belonging could be listed first above, since all other forms of belonging are lesser reflections or approximations of it.
What else might we say about what it means to belong? I suggest relational belonging is humanity’s highest form of participation in the belonging which is God’s own life. This belonging involves:
Knowing. To belong truly is to know truly, and to belong fully is to know fully. One does not belong (with/or someone in the relational sense) if one does not know the one to whom one belongs and if one is not also known by the other. Truth and transparency make relational belonging possible. If you don’t really know the other, or are not really known by them, you don’t belong. It is one thing to say you love another when you don’t know the other. It’s another thing to truly know the other and still love them. Marriage teaches us this. We start out madly in love but not always knowing as fully as we feel. As we come to know our partner more, our love is put to the test.
Accepting. This includes loving, affirming, valuing, celebrating, being present to the other and inviting the presence of the other – all unconditionally. If once you really know someone you reject them or are rejected by someone when they come to know your faults, weaknesses, and struggles, then you didn’t belong to them, nor did they belong to you.
Sharing Life. If someone really knows you and accepts you as you are but doesn’t share his/her life with you, there’s no realization of belonging. To belong is also to participate in the life of the one you know and accept, and to have that person participate in your life. Sharing life, I suggest, is sharing our histories, dreams, fears, hopes, values, and desires. It’s what we’re made for but seldom find.
Lastly, we can only belong to God. No human being can be all this to another, not perfectly. Only God can know us completely, know every condition, and so only God can love us absolutely without condition. And since this is so, we can only belong to God. We say we belong to each other, but as I take it this just expresses the measure to which we participate in and approximate God’s knowledge and love of us.
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