Inner Rings & Belonging

Crossing the Line

We all know what it feels like. The stomach-knotting knowledge that we weren’t invited, that we don’t belong. Our first memories of being left out usually come early in life and can be as simple as not being invited to a birthday party or as complicated as becoming a part of a blended family, where suddenly we realize the family we thought we belonged to no longer exists.

Just as a yellow police line blocks off a crime scene, only allowing those with authority inside, there is a line and we are not allowed inside that line. 

Belonging. Just saying the word can cause pain in many. What is belonging in all its complexity? What is belonging when you are of a third culture? If you live between worlds, do you belong in no man’s land — that strange, twilight space of ‘not there yet’?

Or how about when you are considered ‘half’ like ‘half’ Asian or ‘half’ black? Do you belong to one half or the other? Are you half of a whole? Will you ever be considered more than half?

In his book, The Weight of Glory, CS Lewis takes a profound look at belonging, more specifically at our desire as humans to belong in a chapter based on a lecture he gave called “The Inner Ring“.  

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” C.S.Lewis

The Inner Ring is that elusive place of belonging that is just beyond our reach, just past our grasp. Because once we have reached that inner ring and we begin to settle, we think we’ve finally found a place to belong, what it feels like, looks likewe realize there is a ring beyond that — and once we’ve gotten to that ring, there’s a ring beyond that still.

In elementary school that inner ring is the group of girls that excludes us. They are a part of Something Special and we don’t belong. It’s that group in middle school that get together every Friday night and we’re not invited, that group in high school that bears the name and reputation ‘cool’ and we do not know cool, no matter how hard we try. And though we’d like it to stop there, it often continues. It’s college, then young adult, then work and getting into that inner, secure, exclusive place. It’s church and those people who are in that inner circle, the circle that seems so Godly and confident, the one that we wish we belonged to. And yet when we get close, there’s something beyond, just out of our grasp.

We constantly look to that place of belonging that seems so secure, that tells us we have ‘arrived, yet it continually eludes us.

This has been a deep struggle at different periods in my life. At times I have faced tremendous insecurity around ‘belonging’. I have had points where I have desperately tried to get to that inner ring, that place where I fully belong, where there are no voices telling me I’m not really a part of the group. I’ve had other times where I think I have arrived at that inner place of belonging only to realize there is something missing — there’s another ring to pass through.

This inner ring can be in any area of life…whether it’s around nationality, or academics, or status, or church. We are not born understanding these rings or how to get into them.

At the beginning of the essay, Lewis poses this question: “I will ask only one question—and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.”

To be a part of that inner ring often means acting or speaking in ways that we end up regretting, we forget who we are, we lose our way, all in the quest to get to the inner ring. Sometimes getting to the inner ring involves giving up our integrity, our honesty, and pretending we are someone who we aren’t.

Lewis’ response to this dilemma of the “Inner Ring” is to break the cycle. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we will find ourselves still perhaps on the outside, but no longer will this be a burden, no longer will we wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it inside. Instead we will find our place, sometimes in the most unlikely of circles.

Counter intuitive as it seems, this has been my story. When I finally stopped grasping at success, at confidence, at belonging, I inexplicably found it. It is hard to articulate on paper, even more difficult in person. All I know is that somehow that quest that felt like a burden on my back since boarding school days of popular groups and cliques, has slowly but steadily been broken. In some mysterious way, I belong.

All of this is reminiscent to me of the words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”  Indeed CS Lewis speaks to this as well:

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

What about you? Where has the quest to be in the Inner Ring consumed you? Or have you found that the cycle has broken? 

Belong330This post is linked up to SheLoves Magazine through their February theme “Belonging”. Click here or on the picture to see posts from other writers or to add your own.

Image credit: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

17 thoughts on “Inner Rings & Belonging

  1. Marilyn, This is so strong. And honest. I found myself ‘out’ in a painful and unexpected way in my church over the past few years. But it made me realize that while I was ‘in’ others were out in the cold. I’ve never been ‘in’ before, and will probably never again use a term like ‘best friend,’ because anyone else present feels unwanted around that. So, in the end, I’m glad to have experienced both sides of that coin. Love the concept of rings, and Lewis’ challenge that anything we do to belong in one betrays some part of our unique and genuine self. Thank you.


    1. Anne-Marie – thank you so much for these words – both their wisdom and affirmation. I had a similar experience to you in the past where I went from having this solid place in a group of friends to moving to the United States where I felt like a stranger and alien. I agree – experiencing both sides makes me far more careful in relationships. Another area where I’ve experienced more understanding is through my journey into Orthodoxy. During the last couple years it’s been like everyone’s speaking Martian….but then I think back to the language and ‘culture’ of the Protestant Evangelical church and realize outsiders felt the same with us. Wish this could be a longer conversation but again – thank you.


      1. Hi Marily, – I didn’t see your reply – sorry! And yes! A great conversation. Oddly, I’ve been reading on the Church of England website for about 2 years for my daily devotions – their morning liturgy. And it’s shaping and opening and comforting me in ways I could never have imagined. I feel like I’m a bit between worlds, sitting in the pew at my dear church full of people who love me, but seeing the theology from a different ‘seat’ so to speak. This is a great thread and perhaps worth more posts from you? Just a thought. :) Blessings.


  2. Marilyn, yes! I hear you on belonging. I love how you dig into the feeling. I find that so often I can’t quite get at it. It’s so basic and fundamental and I think I cloud issues of belonging with too much thinking! Simply, so much of life is about finding your tribe, and it’s tough for us third culture kids. I’m excited to have found your blog.


    1. Exactly! I was just journaling about the overanalyzing and over thinking piece because, as often happens, as soon as I published that post I ended up experiencing extreme feelings of ‘not belonging’. Winter. New England. Cold = me feeling alien. A year and a half ago I went to a reunion and I can’t even express the feelings of being with my tribe. It was incredible. Thanks so much for coming by and engaging with the piece. I have a lot more to think about it.


  3. Have shared this insightful and honest post. Actually a bit tough to comment publicly on this. I so appreciate these comments as it is a quite complicated experience we all have. Somehow the holiday time brings out the self evaluations of belonging as we are separated from family and friends if our families are scattered in many places. I agree that extending belonging to others is what we are called to do and be, but that does not guarantee the reciprocal will happen. And it is so strange how many will see others as belonging and then neglect all the while that person is aching with loneliness and a desire for belonging.


    1. It is complicated – ironically, the day I published this post was one of the worst I’ve had in a long time around belonging and envy. And you’re last sentence is so true — I’ve so many examples of finally getting to know someone and looking at each other saying “I always thought you felt completely at home….” only to find out how lost and alone both of us felt. It’s that deep human need to belong and feel valued. A life-long struggle.


  4. Thank you, Marilyn, for voicing this issue! This quest is very real and very tough! The more I recognize the issues, the less the power of it, I find. It is a painful journey and it really affects relationships too with all the pressure it puts on them. Overseas when social circles seem to be smaller, I feel like it takes on more power too. Your post is one that I plan to share for its relevance.
    Any chance you will write on the flip side of belonging? How it places undue stress on friendships?


    1. Yes! That has been my experience as well. Less power when I am honest about my struggle. Talk to me a bit more about the flip side– I think I know what you mean but want to be clear. Also — you hit on something when you talked about social circles being smaller. Yes! So true. This can rear it’s ugly head and destroy unity. Thanks so much for commenting.


      1. By the flip side I mean being perceived as the one that belongs. I find that sometimes I see someone as “belonging” and then shy away from pursuing friendship thinking its not needed or I resent feeling left out so I avoid.
        But, in reality the phantom of “belonging” can leave both isolated–the one for pursuing belonging over friendship, and the other who may be passed over just for the appearance of belonging.
        Ahhh. The tangled webs we weave! Thank you for your insight and courage to delve into such a personal topic so insightfully.



      2. Yes! I thought that was what you were thinking about. We are so good at dressing ourselves in a cloak of belonging to cover up any of the insecurities we may feel. Thank you for your words. Going to think about how to frame this — but yes, I want to talk more about it. Maybe will write it for A Life Overseas.


  5. I have literally been loosing sleep over the concept of belonging these days. While sometimes I still find myself going down the road to self pity, I have been trying lately to become a person that extends belonging to others. I know I’m not the only person who feels like they are on the outside looking in- and I’m much more able to find contentment when I don’t play the comparison game. I’m right I the thick of figuring this out so this post was really encouraging.


    1. This is so good– I feel like being the person who looks to extend belonging to others is one of the keys to the complexity of this. Too often I get wrapped up in my own feelings and assume others do belong. But you’ve also identified something else here — and that is the comparison game. I have found this to be somewhat brutal as well at different points in my life. I appreciate your honesty in this comment that you’ve lost sleep over this. I think that CS Lewis addresses the strength of the feelings in his essay. What I also like is that often these feelings are ascribed to women. He makes it very clear that the problem is universal. Perhaps it seems more concentrated in certain situations. Thank you, thank you for engaging with this through your comment.


  6. This is so good and timely for me Marilyn. Actually I’m working on a (very) rough draft of an essay around the topic of belonging that is due in two weeks so I love how this spurs on my thinking. I want to read that Lewis book now, too. Maybe that is what makes me sad sometimes to return to Djibouti – the sense of being ‘half’ or of sticking out rather than belonging seems so strong there at times.


    1. Oh I look forward to seeing your article! You can get the essay The Weight of a Glory online and it’s far more pithy and detailed than my short piece. It’s an expat and TCK dilemma for sure — not that I don’t think it’s a problem that all humans face. Just that we in the worlds between see it so clearly through external situations. Thinking of you today.


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