Tuesday, June 9, 2015

THE HERE IN THE THERE – Choosing Where to Belong

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Human beings’ yearning to belong is universal, timeless. Cave people huddled ‘round a fire felt it; the regulars at Cheers felt it; even hermits, I would suggest, feel it in their own way. It is experienced by not just thinking, sentient creatures, but, in more mystical ways perhaps, by plants, rocks, water, air...in fact, by absolutely everything in the cosmos.

PHOTO: WikiMedia Commons / Happy Midnight

This is not to say that everyone and everything finds that place of belonging; all are constantly moved—often transformed—by forces and circumstances beyond their control. We human beings are unique in that we can sometimes influence those circumstances, a capacity a tree, a cloud or the moon does not possess. More importantly, we can choose where to belong.

       There is a kind of belonging that suggests 
       not so much the nucleus of one’s being as 
       a kind of centrifugal force around it.

For the human animal, there are two kinds of belonging. The oldest, most primal is the inner-circle version, in which we embrace the familiar: home and family, accustomed routines and traditions. Our attention, our energy, is directed toward a nucleus of people and place. It is a comfortable place, one we love, at least in part, for the fact that it asks very little of us.

There is another kind of belonging, though. One that suggests not so much the nucleus of one’s being as a kind of centrifugal force around it. Though usually tethered to a home base, this kind of belonging yearns to spin off, propelled to new places and experiences. It moves us to experience a more expansive sense of place, one that embraces and celebrates the unfamiliar.

You could call it simply tourism, I suppose, but that would miss the point. We’ve all met those “résumé” travelers who collect passport stamps like chests-full of medals to show off at cocktail parties. These folks—the kind who settle for the two-bit tour or, worse, lock themselves into gated, all-inclusive resorts; the kind who expect things in Timbuktu to be just like they are back in Terre Haute—must be quite lonely indeed. For here they are departing their tried-and-true, inner-circle sense of belonging, only to miss the most rewarding aspects of leaving it: opening one’s heart and mind to new ways of belonging.

                I want to feel I belong—as we 
                all indeed do—to everything.

No, I see my “centrifugal” sense of belonging as a compulsion to embrace—and become embraced—by as many places and cultures as possible. Not just in my own neighborhood; not just in some small town I can drive to in a few hours; not just in our adopted second home town in Mexico. I want to feel I belong—as we all indeed do after all—to everything.


Chase a sense of belonging by leaving behind all that's safe and familiar? Isn't that an oxymoron? I'll never forget the first time I understood why it made perfect sense. Sally and I were in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. It was dusk. We'd decided to venture a few blocks past the nearly palpable boundary of the "tourist" area downtown.

As we walked along, dodging playing kids and sleeping street dogs, the sounds and smells of life in people's homes wafted out to us. I turned to Sally and said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could just walk into one of these homes and be part of their lives for an evening?"

I've had this feeling, this romantic notion of belonging to another family, another culture, many times since. And, perhaps in part because I'd planted the seeds of intention—and certainly empowered by my gaining near-fluency in Spanish—I’ve indeed been able to fulfill that desire on many occasions in my travels. Those people and places continue to feel like home to me, and will for as long as I live.

          It is about as far from belonging as a 
          picture of a tomato is from a tomato.

Travel, aside from being the lifeblood of a romantic, is a consummate teacher. More than just inviting us in to new places and cultures, it asks something of us—to risk, to stretch, to learn, to feel deeply. By not only seeing, but experiencing how other human beings far away live, we learn to appreciate—or perhaps change—the way we live. It can be at the same time empowering and humbling.

That investment of oneself in new experiences and perspectives is what I call seeing generously. It takes the ever-more-prevalent notion that experience is something we merely consume, something we can simply pay for with money, and turns it around. Seeing the world from this perspective, we gladly invest in travel experiences with our time, our curiosity, our caring. One can do it in any number of ways: volunteer with a local organization; take a personal interest in a child or a family; teach; paint, photograph or write about the people and customs; learn the language.

PHOTO: Pack For a Purpose / PackForAPurpose.com

I’m afraid we’ve become a culture where, too often, our social interaction amounts to sitting at home or with friends and, instead of sharing our thoughts and feelings with the folks who are right there in front of us, pretending to connect with other people and places spoon-fed to us, virtually, by some digital device. This asks virtually nothing of us. It is about as far from belonging as a picture of a tomato is from a tomato. 

Another troubling change I’m seeing is our growing expectation of nearly instantaneous, “on-demand” results, and the illusion that we can always be in control of those results. What seeing generously teaches is that, instead of expecting to change our surroundings to suit us, we’re willing to change ourselves to suit our surroundings.

The world could be a far more vital, healthy, peaceful place if only we realize the estrangement we’re allowing these trends to inflict on us. We need to reclaim what is real. And, no matter how much everything else might change, what is real will always mean belonging—whether gathered with loved ones ‘round the fire (a real fire, not one of those HD continuous video loops of one) or reaching out to embrace, first-hand, new people and places.

     We realize who we are, and that we all       
     belong to the same family, the same place.

The wonderful thing about these two inward- and outward-directed senses of belonging is that you don’t have to choose. Far from taking the place of home-centered belonging, the kind of belonging-by-exploring I love so much actually reinforces it. Even when I’m lucky enough to be accepted into another culture for a while, I know very well where my real home is, and the adventure, the perspective, only makes me appreciate it all the more.

And it’s not that I want to escape; it’s that, at home, I take belonging—and everything else—for granted. That, ironically, makes me feel empty. It reminds me how much I need that incredible sense of putting myself out there, learning, seeing things in new ways through the eyes of others who, at first, may seem so utterly different from me. For it is only by opening up and reaching out that we realize who we are, and that we all, indeed, belong to the same family, the same place.

So, as much as you enjoy hanging out at home with your family and friends, make a point to get out there now and then. See generously. Open your mind, heart and spirit to new people and places. Dare to venture beyond the barriers of your assumptions. Find out what it means to embrace the unfamiliar and make it your own. Discover the here in the there.

PHOTO: Pixabay


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