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Power Truth: Everywhere humans gather, trust and flourishing are created when the fundamental human need to belong is met.
I have always felt like an outsider. One feeling I have never experienced consistently over the course of my life is “home.” I have never felt fully at home in any one place, or with any group of people, for an extended period of time, other than with my immediate family, as a child, growing up. I also have never felt a full sense of belonging to any group of people besides my nuclear family.
There are lots of reasons for that. I think my multicultural, multiracial nuclear family contributed to that. Also, I have never belonged to a team!
Racially, from the time I was born, I knew that my family was different. There were no other bi-racial kids in my extended family except for my siblings and me. There were a few at school but not many. Growing up in Nigeria, belonging felt easy. I could tell where another Nigerian was from based on their features. When they spoke, the way they spoke English, their intonation, confirmed it to me. I take great pride in my Yoruba heritage and it continues to shape my life even though I have lived apart from the community I grew up in for over 37 years. Yet, I have never felt fully at home in Lagos because I wondered about my mother’s country and I knew when I was 16, I would leave just like my older siblings did. Lagos, where I was raised, is only one aspect of my belonging.
I love my church. I love being in communion and fellowship and my life feels incomplete when I fall off the church attendance bandwagon. Yet, I grew up with one atheist parent and another agnostic parent. Therefore, church did not become prominent in my life until I was an adult and out of school. And sometimes, most times, my fellow Christians get on my nerves when we try to police the lives of others or meddle too far into politics. Our self-righteousness gets on my last nerves. Small doses. Small doses. Thank God my own local congregation flows in love more than anything else. Otherwise, I would have given up on the faith a long time ago.
When I reflect on practicing law, I remember not fitting in with other students in law school and I remember not enjoying the discussions in many of my classes. They felt “over my head.” I wondered how students could have so much knowledge. I did not give myself a break. I was 20 years old!!! Also, it turns out, many of these kids were kids of lawyers. They grew up discussing Supreme Court cases around the dinner table. I did not. Now, if you wanted to hear about Nigerian politics (what was discussed at my dinner table growing up) I could give you a run for your money.
As I went through my professional life and got married, I ended up not having kids. “Mom” was an identity I was really looking forward to. I felt a huge disconnect from the belonging that my own nuclear family would have given me, especially when I became single again.
I never got attached to my college or law school as an alum. However, my seminary experience felt so good and awesome. I will always be part of that community. It is where I felt the strongest sense of belonging of my entire lifetime. Yet, it was for only three years of my life. I felt a sense of belonging there because of the racial diversity, and the ecumenical nature of theological studies. In this space, we all dug deep and tried to live a self-examined life based on our expressions of faith. The intellectual rigor was expansive, yet it felt safe to me.
When I reflect back over my life, I often feel this huge void where I just have not found a place to belong in a lasting and enduring way. I think it is because, as an immigrant in this country, I know I do not belong here. However, I do want to point out that my family (now, just my siblings and some cousins) has been a huge anchor and wonderful place of belonging for me. My intimate church setting has also been a great place of comfort and belonging for me. I am also (believe it or not) an introvert and I really love being left alone so I do not go looking to “belong.”
I have discovered a sense of belonging in my work and with my clients. There is so much reciprocity for me in my work and I am building a community based on difference and acceptance without a fake elitism and this works well for me. Those deep connections with individuals help me know that I belong and have value.
For many years, I did not know that my lack of “belonging” was driving many unhealthy behaviors for me. I came to this country so young, away from my family and I tried to fit in and belong. Yet, this country’s focus on race was something I was not adequately prepared for. I attended law school to become professionally and financially stable. Yet, it was not something I enjoyed. I was proud of it and I was especially proud of the label “lawyer” but when I joined bar organizations, I could not find a footing and I did not “belong.” My personal expression of my faith was very much at odds with traditional Christianity and once again, I did not feel a sense of belonging. Making a family also did not work out for me, so I missed out on that “belonging.” I tried to create communities and relationships in the most unhealthy of ways. I spent money I did not have, and I tried to seek approval from people who did not give two hoots about me. It was hard, but I am in a different place today.
It took years for me to understand that I just wanted to belong. Once I realized that was the underlying driver, I worked on it and this changed dramatically for me.
The etymology of the word “belong” is interesting. It is a Middle English word and means ‘be appropriately assigned to.’ It is based on the Old English “gelang” which means ‘at hand, together with.’ “Belongingness” the term psychologists use, is “the quality or state of being an essential or important part of something.”
There is an aspect of this word that speaks to equality and fitting in. Another way to think of this word is: “Where I find my equals.” There is also an aspect that speaks to being able to speak into the group (influence) because you are important enough as part of that group.
The Effects of Belonging
Your Original Design:
Our biology reveals the need for us to find a sense of belonging, community, and equivalency. Serotonin and oxytocin, hormones necessary for life, are generated only when we are in positive relationships with others. They foster belonging. Serotonin is released when we have the recognition of others. It gives us the desire to be alpha in this group where we belong.
Oxytocin, on the other hand, is the true belonging hormone. Our first exposure to oxytocin is when a baby is born, and the mother’s body is flooded with this hormone and she falls head over heels in love with the child. This love causes bonding and trust to build in the presence of this hormone. When there is physical touching, this hormone is released. Acts of human generosity trigger this hormone. When someone helps you, when you make eye to eye contact, when you receive a thoughtful handwritten note, there is flow of oxytocin. Those videos on Facebook where we see acts of human generosity and kindness? Oxytocin storm! It boosts the immune system and wards of addictions of all sorts. It takes time to accumulate in the body but when this hormone is flowing on a regular basis, one day, you wake up and know that you know that you know that you belong!
This need to belong is often addressed in terms of primary relationships and the need to attach to a significant other. But it also addresses a need to belong to a larger community such as an ethnic tribe, an organization, or even a religion.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs speaks to our fundamental need for belonging.
Questions to Ponder:
Where do you belong? To which group of people do you belong? Where does your body feel “at home?”
Disorientation – Where It All Went Wrong:
The problem with belonging is when there is an imbalance between equality and control. In indigenous cultures, people were born into the ethnic group and socialized into the group. This is how people belonged. Often, there were oppressive systems that disapproved of “difference.” This led to social conformity.
In the United States, a country of immigrants, Christians seeking religious freedom came here seeking freedom of expression. That cause helped them to bond and create a new living environment. Many think of the USA as a “Christian” country. Yet, religious freedom is a right under the constitution. Often, we want to impose values and ideologies of the Christian faith upon others. We want our governance to reflect Christian values.
But is that right? And what exactly are Christian values? Whose values are they? Christians don’t agree as to a unified Christian expression so how can we ascribe “Christian values” to a country?
Whenever we try to exclude people from a group to preserve the status quo of the group, we dilute belonging. The very thing we are trying to do backfires. Belonging is an expansive growing thing. Just like there are always new members to a family or clan, we have to allow more diversity into our groups to make us grow. Just like you cannot intermarry in your family as it would cause genetic problems, expanding our groups to include diverse and different forms of people helps us to be stronger. When we focus on excluding others, we get into a stance of protection of our group which then moves us from focusing on belonging to focusing on preservation.
Example: As the USA grew, slavery was part of its economic development system. White people were the “in group” and black people were the “out-group.” Although blacks belonged to one another, the structures that support belonging were stripped away from them: language, familial relationships, economic capacity to support a family, etc. Supposedly, “separate but equal” facilities, schools and opportunities were created. We know that was not the case. Today, although the laws support equality, systems that were built on inequality find it impossible to reflect equity that supports and promotes everyone regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Questions to ponder:
How are you contributing to excluding others from belonging? Have you intentionally reached out to those that do not belong to try and make them belong? Do you believe that if you allow others to belong, you will have to give up something precious to you? Where have you felt excluded? How did you handle it?
Power Over: This is destructive in nature and is applied particularly to political life. This is threat power. There is no role for this in our personal lives and in our relationships. This is power reserved for structures and not for people.
When those with authority and high position dictate the terms of belonging, they abuse their power as they exert “power over” to exclude others from the group. I think of transgendered folks. They have always been excluded from society and they have had to live in small pockets to protect themselves and live life on their terms. Yet, there is a movement for acceptance these days. Our laws are changing to accept them. President Obama passed a law that allowed for transgendered bathrooms and it was highly controversial.
I only have one question for those that opposed the law. Where are they supposed to use the bathroom?
Last bit of information I had in my arsenal, transgendered people are (wait for it…..) PEOPLE! They pee and poop just like you and me! They deserve to have access to the bathroom! To use laws to further exclude them from the definition of humanity is a profound act of rejection. They already have problems belonging because of social stigma and it is further compounded by laws that prohibit them from having the most basic human experiences.
If you get emotions out of the way and think of people you do not want in your “group,” you will find, if you are honest, that you feel you are “better” than they are and that they will “contaminate” your group. There is something about them that you think is lesser than.
These days, a cursory scroll of Facebook tells me that there are a couple of pedophiles running for office. I sure hope it is not true. I don’t believe in their agenda. I do believe in morality and that behavior falls under the category of “Not Ok!”
Yet, they need love too. They are humans who are behaving in despicable ways. They are harming other people in the group. We do not want their behavior in any group. But if you stop and think about it, their behavior is an expression of “power over” children. There is something in us that knows that is a violation of young humans. With the transgendered community, they are not harming anybody. They feel trapped in a gender that they do not identify with. They are looking for ways to live as they believe they are on the inside. There is nothing to be moral about here. Their presence is not harmful although some, because of their preconceived notions, may find it offensive. There is a difference.
When we extend our moral standards to get people to behave in conformity with the group, we are violating what belonging is all about.
Conformity to the group must be voluntary instead of controlled by the authority of the group.
Questions to ponder:
What groups of people make you feel uncomfortable? Why do you not want them in your group to whom you belong? Is your morality a universal standard? Who do you want in your group? Are they just like you? What difference does your group tolerate?
Reorientation – Who Are We Now?
We must begin to examine the groups we belong to and why we belong to those groups. We must question how we were raised and if it still serves us. Groups lose their value if they are no longer voluntary. This is how we exercise our “power in.”
Power In: This rests largely on the power to produce and exchange. Also known as economic power. This is the seat of your personal power. You have value. You have something to offer the world.
We must give ourselves permission to leave groups that do not serve us. I am fortunate to have a fine example in my father. My father taught us how to not conform for the sake of belonging. In Yoruba culture, we revere our elders. Therefore, you should not call an older sibling by his or her first name. So my father, the fifth child, called his older sister’s “Sis” as was required by the group dynamics.
However, my father did not make this rule effective in our home. I call my siblings by their first names although they are older than me. If there was a belonging rule that he wanted us to keep, we were taught why, and the explanations made sense. I do not call my older cousins by their first names. This was because my father taught us that, outside of the home, we had to be sensitive to cultural rules as others may not understand. He taught us a respect for the larger culture, so we could still function within it with a proper sense of belonging.
This type of permission gave me the ability to not feel a need to conform to an ethnic group just to feel a sense of belonging. It takes a clear sense of “power in” to stand apart from your ethnic group and say, “No. That part does not work for me.”
Although belonging plagued me for years, I did not understand that was what I was needed in my life.
Questions to ponder:
What aspects of your personal power do you need to develop to reject parts of the groups you belong to that are not aligned with your values? Do you have enough independent thought to disagree without destroying the group? How do you identify yourself outside of your group? What does your group offer you? What do you offer your group?
Power With: This is based on such relationships as legitimacy, respect, affection, love, and community. This is how you share your “power in.” This form of power is integrative and creates new life-giving opportunities for everyone involved.
To share the power of belonging is to embrace hospitality with limits. As we addressed above, we don’t want certain behaviors in our groups, but we do want humans that we can experience equality with as well as influence towards. This is tricky, especially in this country where African Americans and White Americans have a history of inequality. Yet inclusion expands the capacity of the group. Every time we embrace difference, we grow stronger as we expand our capacity to innovate and be creative.
Diversity and inclusion is not just good politics, it is in your self-interest to embrace it because it impacts your bottom line positively. Businesses that have intergenerational strength find that they have the innovation and creativity of young people as well as the wisdom and knowledge of older workers and they create new cutting-edge products together. When a business embraces cultural diversity, they find that they have opportunities in new markets.
Diversity of thought in the boardroom means that better ethical decisions are made. Diversity of thought is not just based on personality, but ethnic and cultural background also supports such diversity.
Yet Diversity is insufficient.
You must have Inclusion, Equity, and Justice as well.
Inclusion means that although your workforce, community, customers, clients (or whatever) look like they represent different groups, all groups are included in all areas of decision making.
Equity means that you provide access for each person based on that individual and not a blanket arbitrary model of equality.
Justice, quite simply, is love in community. Doing the right thing, for the right people, at the right time and with the right resources.
When you share power, you naturally create justice.
Questions to ponder:
Are you hospitable to strangers? Are you offended by difference? How do you allow others into your group? Do you embrace difference around you?
Practical Application in Leadership:
Emotional Intelligence Aspect:
Interpersonal skills, or people skills, is the Emotional Intelligence component that helps people create strong communities of belonging. Those who function well in this area tend to be responsible and dependable. They understand, interact with and relate well to others in a variety of situations. They inspire trust and function well as part of a team. By becoming aware of your social environment, you can evaluate when where and why to begin and end a variety of social interactions. Knowing how to be a good listener and how to be gracious in conversations are aspects that open the door to allow others to enter into your communities.
Most communities have women in them, but the question becomes are women part of the structure of leadership in that community? Churches are part of this problem. Many churches still have an issue with women not being allowed to preach. Beloveds, gender no longer addresses traditional roles of men and women only. Transgendered folks are people too and deserve to be in all our communities. Patriarchy is a systemed order of belonging but it is based on male authority and not shared power.
Questions to ponder:
Where are the bulk of women in your communities? Does leadership reflect women? How are your communities making it easier for women to belong to the community?
Race and Culture:
Historically, African Americans have been excluded from leadership in this country. Every now and then, we have a fluke like Barack Obama as president, but the backlash feels strong about that. It goes without saying that ethnic diversity is important in all strata of society.
Questions to ponder:
What is the ethnic make-up of your various communities? Would any ethnicity feel welcome to your group? Do you have personal friends of different ethnicities? Have you developed relationships with people of different ethnicities at work or at church? Are you uncomfortable holding the gaze of a person of a different ethnicity?
The Poor Among Us:
In our capitalistic society, every group should have poor people. Yes. I said so. We tend to shut them away and they live in communities we do not drive to. Yet, capitalism demands that there will be poor people. Our largest corporations have minimum wage workers as well as people earning millions of dollars.
Questions to Ponder:
Where are the poor in your communities? Do you know any poor people personally? How do they understand belonging? Do they have equal standing in your communities? Where do they get heard? Do you know what their social issues are?
To think we belong to a group and it is merely a mirror of an elitist standard we have set cheats you of the opportunity of living and expanding into a whole life.
My hope is that you will grow this week by expanding the groups that you belong to. Take an inventory of the groups you belong to and assess if it still serves you.
Ensure that your relationships are strong with a diversity of people that enjoy the benefits of your communities. Take a belonging audit and make sure your friends have some groups that they belong to and you do not. That kind of diversity in friendship really helps you grow.
Make sure your work, church, and other groups you belong to are diverse and reflect ethnic, gender and socio-economic diversity.
Very simply, assess where you belong and to whom you belong to? Does it feel right? Who is missing? Reach out and make new friends.
As you journey on this pilgrimage, my hope, invitation, and desire for you, dear reader, is that you will become more present to the power of belonging in your own life. It is influencing you whether you realize it or not.
Expand your sense of belonging by engaging with others that are different from you and make sure they have a voice and are on an equal playing field with you.
If this has been helpful to you, please share this and tell others about your pilgrimage. Hit reply and let me know your thoughts.
More amazing hugs on the pilgrimage.