Belonging encompasses two critical components of our resilience. Neglected, and we are likely to crumble in the next inevitable crisis.
Our first line of defense in the midst of crisis is our closest relationships, what I differentiate as our Wholehearted Allies, those people in your life who show up unconditionally, even and especially when it’s inconvenient.
Belonging also encompasses the broader picture of finding our tribe; feeling a sense of belonging and commitment to a community bigger than ourselves and our immediate family and friends. Even feeling a connection and obligation to nature and the world we collectively call home.
Researchers have suggested that there is an epidemic of loneliness, going as far as to state that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
As a force in shaping our health, medical care pales in comparison with the circumstances of the communities in which we live. Few aspects of community are more powerful than is the degree of connectedness and social support for individuals.
Why are we more lonely than ever?
Western culture is marked by values of independence, perfectionism, and stoicism, especially in America. This leads to the stigma associated with prolonged grief, mental illness, or even just a body that doesn’t fit a certain impossible mold.
We learn from an early age to hide, crop out, or leave out of conversation certain parts of ourselves, even with our family and closest friends. The message is clear: these parts are clearly bad, unworthy and shameful.
Now add social media into the mix, with our endless scrolling through retouched and filtered images and having hundreds or thousands of “friends” on various platforms, most of which hardly know us and certainly don’t care about us. The felt distance online, as opposed to face-to-face, encourages a invitation to bully, shame, judge and otherwise project our fear-based biases onto strangers who look, think or act differently.
In this cloud-based culture of superficial, judgmental, and impersonal taps, we are more disconnected from authenticity, empathy, and real relationships than ever before. There is a very real cultural undertone of relationships as disposable and love as earned, easily traded in if we no longer look or perform up to par.
When we lack real, close, vulnerable relationships, we experience a sense of isolation even in the midst of a crowd. Due to the stigma, we don’t tell anyone about how we are feeling. We keep our loneliness inside, where it grows into feelings of depression, hopelessness and apathy.
We crave intimacy, to be seen and unconditionally accepted by another human being.
These are special relationships. I distinguish them as Wholehearted Allies, and they’ve become particularly rare in this time where it’s normal to swipe right for a date and ghost a friend after a fight.
Unlike acquaintances, companions of convenience (such as work colleagues or school mates), or fair weather friends, Wholehearted Allies show up unconditionally. That means: even if it’s the middle of the night and you’ve messed up royally.
These relationships require intentional cultivation. Unfortunately, we tend to be mindless in this area. Our high school and college friends move away, we go through marriages, babies, divorces, our own children move out…and at some point we find ourselves in a position where we really need the emotional first aid of meaningful support with no one to call on.
How to cultivate Wholehearted Allies
- Honestly assess an inventory of your Wholehearted Allies. Ask: How has this person shown up in my life when it was inconvenient for them, without judgment? Then ask: When was the last time I showed up for them unconditionally? Do I know what stress they are experiencing right now?
- Show up. Reach out to your final list, which might be two people or 10 people. Practice deep listening (no judgment, no fixing, no interrogating, and don’t make it about you). Listen just to listen, expressing your faith in their own abilities in the process. Then, I recommend inputting calendar reminders with their names to remind you to reach out again if you haven’t touched base recently.
- Keep throwing out the net. Attend meetups of shared interests, such as yoga or pottery or hiking, to continually meet new people. You never know when you will connect with a new friend destined to become a Wholehearted Ally, and how you might also impact their life. Plus, meeting new people is a skill that will serve you in every area of your life, but we tend to avoid the discomfort until we hide in the back of any social event we are forced to attend.
- Nurture belonging within yourself. The work of undoing the insecurities bestowed on us by well-meaning parents, school bullies, or our broader culture is no small battle. But it’s perhaps the most important one to take on; to find your path to self-acceptance. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach might be a good place to start. And therapy is often a foundational stepping stone to experiencing unconditional positive regard, so that you can begin to give this to yourself.
Belonging is also about a broader sense of community
We’ve moved further and further away from small, tight-knit communities that used to come together during times of difficulty, the barn-raisers and casserole-makers who provide that sense of security and support in case of crisis.
We now live an unprecedented era of mobility and social distance, where it’s common to make major relocations, we make an average of 12 employer changes over the course of a career, and, as of 2018, 24.8% of Americans reported no religious affiliation.
Our natural community hubs have fallen away while we increasingly bristle from spontaneous social interaction or even general politeness with neighbors or table adjacent coffeehouse patrons.
How to Cultivate Community
We all belong to certain tribes, some handed down from our family of origin, others picked up along the way through work, partnership, children, interests, passions and friendships.
- Consciously choose your tribes. Instead of skirting around the edges of the groups by default, it’s time to intentionally identify your values and thereby which communities you want to belong to.
- Contribute to your community. There are many ways to share our time, knowledge, or talents, from service projects to visiting with lonely older adults within your tribe.
- Get to know your tribe members, while practicing unconditional acceptance and open curiosity.
- Connect to nature and practice being a positive world citizen. Perhaps start recycling, clean up trash, use less water, or drive less. Pick your challenge, and pair it with exploring the natural wonders all around us to cultivate appreciation and awareness.