"Love is our true destiny.
We do not find the meaning of life
by ourselves alone-
we find it with one another."
~ Thomas Merton, Love and Living
In this recollection, in this foraging for signals of grace through the season’s incessant and thick snowstorms, it becomes vital to revisit my purposes. Nature’s encroachment has a confronting beauty. Even if to remember that clouds of unknowing are part-and-parcel of the life of faith, and the key is to simply continue with a consistently hopeful and grateful spirit. Sowing and seeking compassion must be undaunted. Perhaps it is natural that when our steps fail us, we begin to look back. I am trying to transform that reflex into some kind of balance between a forward perspective and the search within, though it can occasionally send us back in time. If I am to plumb the depths of the soul I have journeyed these years with, I must dare to consider the volatile theme of belonging- one thread which has laced my days from earliest memory. It is a life theme. When absent, an anguish; when present, a sublime joy.
To be integral to something greater than our lone selves is a universal longing. In varying degrees, founded upon our earliest experiences, we desire the assurance of belonging. There is a strengthening comfort in knowing we are anticipated and accepted for nothing other than who we are. For some, "fitting in," implies more impact than for others, coexisting with a hungering for our own distinguished identities. At some point, just about all of us dressed and talked like our friends; we liked what each other liked, though we’d all claim our own unique style to our selves. My personal adventures, having been in such far-flung places and demographically diverse situations, all have contributed to a scrapbook life of savoury kindred and community experiences. Indeed, many of us can pause to notice layers of concentric circles of friends and colleagues. Many an academic workday has comprised nights of ESL volunteer teaching, with the next day involving a photo shoot, and the next day playing music in a church, with the next day taking to the road- or the air- to see more people in still more situations that I know. This has gone on for years. A perceptive friend once pointed out how amusing it can be to simply glance at one’s entire e-mailing address list, noticing all the names and the meandering ways we become a common reference point to a hodge-podge of individuals we can only imagine ever seeing all of them in the same banquet hall at the same time. An amusing thought. But, oh, how the soul longs for unity- and for recognition! We are created for community and we thrive when we are assured of our belonging, or our being as part of a boundless entirety.
In a life of opposites and paradoxes, belonging and exclusion are far more than vague concepts. These are powerful emotions connected to experiences, many of which are indelible still. It does surprise me, to think about how many childhood instances remain with me. These things, in the duration of their happening, had short-lived significance- and if any more than that, circumstances I simply wished to surmount. Getting through school, wishing to be anyplace else than where I was, escaping the grasps of gangs and thugs, or dreaming about leaving. Quite often it seemed the idea was to move on to the "bigger and better" things. I used to wish away my time, having been one of those kids who was mercilessly bullied without defense, and that had profoundly affected my view of life- always between acceptance and rejection, and always looking to some imagined destination. It took years to sort out these ingrained self-assessments, and the challenge occasionally amplified when I could recognize condoned workplace versions of schoolyard bullying. The relentlessly abusive production manager at a studio I worked for, echoed the aggression of muggers in the elevator of the high-rise project I lived in, during my grade-school years. During a misunderstanding in which I stood alone in my cause, it was as though I had been back in one of those summer camps, teased and maligned, suddenly tossed from the garden as it were. Being shunned by colleagues blurred into the shunning of my co-religionists and family when I embraced a new faith, and the gauntlet seemed to go on and back to the snarls aimed at the youngest, smallest, weakest kid in the class. Once, as a ten-year-old, I took an unwarranted thrashing from a bigger kid- and got sent to the school nurse, who turned out to be the kid’s mother. She did not know who had bloodied me, and when she told me who she was, I simply said that her son was a nice guy. Why I remember such things is beyond me.
Perhaps there is a cutting edge, when enough ostracism, disowning, rejection, and undercutting becomes a costly self-underestimation. Surely it has not all been negative, and the pendulum would often get pulled in the very opposite direction when I would find welcome company. And it has been, and remains, in many unrelated places, tastes of spiritual and intellectual kindredship. Part of its beauty is in its very unpredictability. If you treat everyone well, there is always an open door for something new to materialize. Then you can be the one who includes others. And when things descended to their very worst, and I had been certain that I walked this earth alone and unwanted, my steps brought me to the little sign along the path to the Weston Priory that reads, Know That You Are Welcome. There, on the first of countless pilgrimages, I began to pull the experiences of acceptance together with the nurture of an encouraging community, and build enough strength to begin applying all the good which had been shared with me. If it has been an odyssey to find where I most clearly sense that coveted attribute of belonging, I have been learning to gratefully recognize the fleeting situations and the companies of those among whom I find the deepest joy. When the inward cry of "where is home," is contrasted by the presence of compassionate friends, it is impossible not to connect the two scenarios. When we have had to navigate the darkness east of Eden, with some patience we can surely learn to savour the sunlight.
In his book, Love and Living, Thomas Merton adds, "We do not discover the secret of our lives merely by study and calculation in our own isolated meditations. The meaning of our life is a secret that has to be revealed to us in love, by the one we love. And if this love is unreal, the secret will not be found, the meaning will never reveal itself, the message will never be decoded." Adding this to our equation, we may reconsider the impact of belonging, for us and those in our midst. If we embrace the call to belong*, then we see our role in the lives of those we meet who wish not to be islands unto themselves. (In this respectful context, nothing is to be enforced upon anyone.) So who makes the rules, anyway, about who "deserves" sympathy and respect, and who doesn’t? Who’s in the "club," and who’s out? Upon reflection, for those whose impressionable exclusions have forced themselves into self-imposed lives as outcasts, perhaps it is that we have the power to include ourselves into our own environments, and conversely to embrace those around us- those kindred souls each of us will invariably find- into our unique spheres. For me, it’s been helpful to think about the gold I have emerged with, through times of trial. And when I see those contrasts of rejection and belonging juxtaposed, my resolve is to continue being mindful of others’ circumstances, and to be sure to contribute positively to wherever I am. Time may not reliably heal, but it does shape our perspectives. And there is always that open-end, that beautiful way forward that is extended to us each day. This morning my thoughts were captivated by simply acknowledging the amazing mystery of not being able to fully know what I may be equipping myself for.
* Romans 1:5,6