Weekly Edgework #3 - July 19, 2004

Belonging, Yet Alone

There lives within the breast of every person both a desire to belong and a desire to be an individual. We all live somewhere on a continuum between the poles of absolute individualism on the one hand, and total conformity to community on the other. All of life seems to be an attempt to find an appropriate balance between our need to belong and our need to be an individual. Both needs are legitimate and essential to one’s wellbeing. But these apparently paradoxical needs can only be fulfilled when they exist as a delicate balance in one’s personal experience.

In some tribal communities the identity of the individual is totally submerged in the identity of the tribe. It is unthinkable not to follow prescribed patterns of thought and action since this would immediately trigger tribal sanctions of one kind or another – until the individual falls in line with the thought patterns and actions of the tribe.

The same dynamic is evident on Mennonite Colonies in Latin America. Every individual is expected to live in total conformity to colony rules. Men and women have clearly defined roles. Only a small number of occupations are sanctioned. And leaders are expected to enforce a high degree of uniformity. Individuals challenging these community mores are shunned, excommunicated and otherwise hounded with the hope that they will retake their places within the boundaries of the community.

This temptation to keep individuals confined in watertight boxes is often evident as well in most church communities in North America. And the legitimate need to belong is so strong for most of us that we often betray our true identities in order to remain members in good standing of our church communities.

On the other side of the paradox, our culture encourages individualism. Be yourself. Think for yourself. Do what you consider best - no matter what others think! This can at times lead to a great sense of personal freedom. But this end of the continuum has its shadow side as well. Pursuing individual identity without thought for the community often leads to a profound sense of loneliness.

In his book, Becoming Human, Jean Vanier writes about this search for balance as follows:

So here is the paradox: as humans we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong, to fit in and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and the drive to let our deepest selves rise up, to walk alone, to refuse the accepted and the comfortable, and this can mean, at least for a time, the acceptance of anguish. It is in the group that we discover what we have in common. It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposing impulses (18-19).

Understanding that we live with this paradox helps me to be aware of the constant balancing act that I perform in my own life. I can see the hazards of simply conforming to community mores in order to maintain cozy feelings of belonging. I can also see the arrogance of heading out on my own no matter what the community thinks. I have, at times, erred on both sides of the fulcrum. Mostly, I have erred on the side of playing it safe within the comfortable boundaries of my various communities. My tendency these days is to err on the side of discovering my true self in spite of the anguish of loneliness that comes with it – without considering what that discovery will do to my place of belonging.

My goal is to become better at performing the delicate balancing act of becoming a truly authentic self in the context of community. I am aware, however, that to do this I will at times have to sacrifice that cozy sense of belonging and at other times the exhilaration of free flight.