I imagine a circle with the word belonging written in the center.
That is how I have come to think about belonging – “us” who are in the circle, and “them” who are outside of it. This is belonging, that is not belonging.
However, present experience and ancestral memory both reveal how much trauma has been created by this definition of belonging. Does inclusion vs. exclusion really define belonging? What is the true nature of belonging? And what can an understanding of belonging teach us about our roles as parents and teachers?
When I draw the circle again, I see that I have created three spaces: What’s inside, what’s outside, and the boundary. Gazing at this drawing, I see that the boundary is not a brick wall. Rather, I have drawn a cell with a living, permeable membrane. The role of the boundary is to serve life. It is an intelligent container that functions to nourish the life-force within the cell. And as the miraculous intelligence of a healthy system teaches us, healthy living boundaries do not just serve the individual, they serve the health of the entire system. This thought lights me up: the function of belonging is to serve life!
As I look at my drawing, I see that as a parent, I am drawn to the boundary. How often have I stood at that boundary like a soldier at the wall, patrolling what goes in and what goes out for my child? The question arises: is this my true role as parent?
As mother, to carry the child in her womb, her body is quite literally a boundary between the developing baby and the world. However, from the moment the child is born, the learning of the mother is the sensitivity and discernment with which she separates herself from the child’s boundary.
I notice that when I stand as mother at the boundary, I am turned inwards facing the circle, not outwards. I am surprised by this. When I think of the “soldier at the wall” that is an orientation outwards. Fear underlies this orientation, readiness to ward off or attack. But when I face inwards towards the circle, I see that I have the joy of witnessing the life force of the child. It is an orientation of love and care. I am nearby should they need me while standing in the field of Love.
When I orient as teacher, I stand near the child. The child is slightly in front of me. This allows me to see the child while standing grounded in the area outside their immediate boundary. In the teacher role, I am friendly with what’s outside the boundary, and this enables me to introduce the child to what’s outside and to help them leave behind what no longer serves them.
From this position I understand that what’s outside the boundary is not defined as excluded or not belonging. Rather, belonging permeates everything. All things exist in a state of belonging. It is not necessary for me to “figure out” what belongs and where, simply to respond in accordance to what serves my own life force. I recall the beautiful quote by somatics trainer and educator Prentis Hemphill, “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” I find this to be a perfect description of my inquiry on belonging.
I share my reflections with a friend, and our conversation generates a new word for boundary: relationship. Hearing this makes me want to dance.
I encourage you to make your own drawing of “belonging.” What arises for you?
PS: You can view a talk I did with my colleague Illi Adato on Belonging: