Born to Belong

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“When you’ve spent your whole life as a cultural chameleon, you end up not knowing what color you were when you started, who you might have been had you been from someplace, what it feels like to belong fully to a people, a tribe, a neighborhood, a city.” from Rachel Hicks in “To My Adult TCK Self: I See You”

In The Weight of Glory, in a chapter based on a lecture called “The Inner Ring”, C.S. Lewis takes a profound look at belonging, specifically at our desire to belong.

“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.”(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 and think we’ve finally found a place to belong, we realize there is a ring beyond that —and once we’ve gotten to that ring, there’s a ring beyond that still. It is a never-ending quest.

I write about this in Between Worlds, but just writing about something doesn’t take it away. This struggle to belong is human, hard, and never-ending.

We are born to belong. 

A number of years ago, my husband was dropping off my son at a birthday party. Another kid from the class was in the car as he and my son had worked on a class project that morning. When my husband made the plan to drive him home, it made sense that he would combine the trips. We assumed that the birthday party would just have a couple of kids at it. When they arrived at the house where the birthday party was being held, a huge crowd of boys descended on the car welcoming our son. In fact, it appeared the entire class had been invited except for the boy in our car. The boy was crushed. We unwittingly participated in a kid realizing he had been left out, realizing he was not invited to that particular inner ring. It was completely accidental, but it still happened.

If we’re honest we will admit that 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 can be as simple, yet painful, 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. The desire to belong and the feelings that arise when we realize we don’t are part of the human dilemma.

In elementary school that inner ring and quest to belong 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 no matter how hard we try, we do not know cool. Though we would like it to stop there, it often continues. It’s college, then young adulthood, 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 that circle, just out of our grasp.

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

Third culture kids can find this particularly difficult as they straddle many worlds and places. Each place has its own inner ring, each group its own rules. We don’t belong to our passport countries; nor do we fully belong to those other countries where we leave pieces of our lives. Keeping parts of ourselves hidden becomes a necessity because explaining is too difficult.

And yet, it is such a gift. To be able to know what it is to be other in our world of massive displacement is nothing less than a gift. A strange gift perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. The only way to break this cycle of the inner ring is to embrace the gift of not belonging. This echoes Lewis’ response to the “Inner Ring” dilemma. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we may still find ourselves on the outside, but it will no longer be a burden, we will no longer wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it inside. Instead we will find a place, sometimes in the most unlikely of circles.

I have slowly come to this place. I don’t even really know when I first realized that I was no longer striving to be part of the inner ring and I wish it had not taken so long. Somehow the quest to belong, that burden on my back since boarding school days of popular groups and cliques, has slowly but steadily been broken. In some mysterious and completely inexplicable way, I belong.

To be sure there are days when I find myself wandering back to the place of inner rings and the quest to belong. But as I begin to try to worm my way into those rings, something always stops me. I remember what it was to strive so hard that I lost my way. I remember that knowing what it is to not belong brings understanding and eyes to see the one at the edges, the one on the margins who sits in the shadows, aching to belong. A voice inside reminds me that my identity is in something so much bigger and greater than any inner ring. It’s in the knowledge that I am loved by God, created to reflect his glory until all inner rings have faded and time stretches into eternity. 

Belonging….doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. – Brené Brown in Daring Greatly

Thinking of a graduation gift for TCKs? Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey may be a good option! Worlds Apart v2

11 thoughts on “Born to Belong

  1. Thanks for this post, Marilyn. I found the above comments insightful as well. Your quote by Brene Brown got be looking up my copy of ‘Daring Greatly’ (which I read through twice) and am about to read Braving the Wilderness (her recent book) again. As an adult Cross Cultural Kid parent of TCKs; I have found a lot of Brene Brown’s research relevant.

    One the one hand, it has helped me process what I have have struggled with regarding issues of belonging – having grown up with often feeling I could not be ‘me’ as I had to ‘fit in’; and at the same time, helping my kids feel that they can be themselves for they are truly and dearly loved as they are in our family, by God and our extended family. However, as Brene Brown puts it in her books – this takes courage to be vulnerable.

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  2. I still forget what colour I am, but it was brought back to me forcefully that I am “other” when we lived in Hawaii. That was interesting. Even though I was willing to reach across the divide and get to know them, I was rejected because I was “Houwli”, not Hawaiian. Okay, I could live with being not Hawaiian, but to be called “no breath”, the name for white people, bothered me. I eventually understood why the name came to be, but that wasn’t me. Yes, I’m white, but I wish I wasn’t. Or do I? Somehow I need to learn to be okay with who I am.

    And I think that’s the struggle: if we’re not okay with who we are, we keep trying to fit in with some other group. I think it’s where we put our focus. Are we looking at a group of people to make us feel good about ourselves, or looking at the Lord, who can give us peace beyond our own understanding? I’m working on putting my focus in the right place, and then what someone calls me, how they see me with their eyes, won’t matter. It’s a process for me.

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  3. HI Marilyn, I understand very well what hauch6 relates to with her daughter. Both of my daughters grew up in international communities across the world and they find it difficult to relate to much of our American culture, especially in our southern states. My master’s prepared older daughter would prefer to live in Europe. She visits there as often as possible. We spent 12 years living as expatriates and I miss it very much. In Europe and other global communities, being different is not so different, because everyone seems to be from somewhere else making acceptance of cultural differences a wonderful thing. International communities seem to appreciate their differences with aplomb, for the most part. Thank you for a much needed discussion.

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    1. So happy to have you come by and take the time to connect this way. There is something about America’s geographical location and isolation that seems to block interest and enjoyment of cultural differences. We moved from an international community in Cairo that was amazing to a small town in the Northeast where difference meant you were odd and folks had nothing to say to you. I talked to a friend yesterday who is moving to Kenya. When her daughter told her class mates there were blank looks and they went right back to their conversation. This 9 year old was crushed! Just crushed. So was the mom…. It’s also the Adult TCK dilemma. Where your life-experience doesn’t seem to connect with your current reality. Really tough.

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      1. Marilyn, my daughters can certainly relate (and me too) to your daughters disappointment. We lived in The Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, and England. My youngest was also crushed because they thought she was lying and the bullied her. She was about 12 years old when we returned and her sister was 15 years old. Fortunately, they had made many expatriate friends in Saudi and in England. So, there best friends are still from the countries we lived in for a total of 12 years of their growing up. They would both rather live in Europe or England. So many of America’s children are put off by other kids from other cultures, especially in the south, I think, where we now live. I think that every school child should go on school trips to a foreign country, then maybe those countries would no longer be so foreign, just another part of a wonderful, interesting, and exciting world where children wherever they live are not so different after all. This would bring about world peace overtime, I hope.

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  4. Hi, again, Marilyn! I really appreciate your blogs for offering unique perspectives on TCK issues of belonging. This one has made me think again. Thank you! One of my daughters, who grew up in Spain, attended boarding school for four years in Germany, an American College for four years, and is now about to complete a two-year master’s program in Stockholm, May be coming ‘home’ to us in the next few weeks, that is, if she doesn’t find a job in Europe first. She has no sense of belonging here, nor anywhere except among other internationals. She only has connections in her college town, but sees returning there as a step backward. I’m truly wondering how to help her, when/if she does return to the States. Any suggestions?

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    1. Thanks so much for coming by! Wow – that is really hard. I will say that I wish that someone had told me to treat the United States like entering a foreign country, so all the things on culture adjustment and entry apply. Refugee materials on resettlement were really helpful for me because they basically explain the U.S. The caveat is that no matter how many tools you have, and how good they are, part of the difficulty is that our outsides don’t match our insides. People still don’t get that I don’t see the world through an American lens, no matter how long most of them have known me. What has helped me are my immigrant friends, my refugee friends, and my TCK friends. But also, there are those folks who are “pure American” who have emerged as my cultural brokers. It’s not that they understand me so much as they don’t need to fully understand in order to love. And they stretched out their arms to me with so much love and grace. They have been a huge gift. I’m happy to talk further if you’d like to connect offline. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

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  5. I know exactly what you are saying, Marilyn. The one community I really belong to is the community that does not belong to any community. Actually it’s a good place to be. We are free to be who we are and the person God created us to be. I think we might be surprised that some of those in the inner circle feel as if they do not belong. Maya Angelou had this to say: “If you are always trying to be normal (that is to belong*) you will never know how amazing you can be.” * in parenthesis my words

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